What Color is My Arm? Changes in Skin Color of an Embodied Virtual Arm Modulates Pain Threshold

Front Hum Neurosci. 2013 Jul 31;7:438. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00438. eCollection 2013.

Abstract

It has been demonstrated that visual inputs can modulate pain. However, the influence of skin color on pain perception is unknown. Red skin is associated to inflamed, hot and more sensitive skin, while blue is associated to cyanotic, cold skin. We aimed to test whether the color of the skin would alter the heat pain threshold. To this end, we used an immersive virtual environment where we induced embodiment of a virtual arm that was co-located with the real one and seen from a first-person perspective. Virtual reality allowed us to dynamically modify the color of the skin of the virtual arm. In order to test pain threshold, increasing ramps of heat stimulation applied on the participants' arm were delivered concomitantly with the gradual intensification of different colors on the embodied avatar's arm. We found that a reddened arm significantly decreased the pain threshold compared with normal and bluish skin. This effect was specific when red was seen on the arm, while seeing red in a spot outside the arm did not decrease pain threshold. These results demonstrate an influence of skin color on pain perception. This top-down modulation of pain through visual input suggests a potential use of embodied virtual bodies for pain therapy.

Keywords: body ownership; multisensory integration; multisensory stimulation; pain modulation; pain threshold; virtual arm; virtual reality.