Neural correlates of conscious tactile perception: An analysis of BOLD activation patterns and graph metrics

Neuroimage. 2021 Jan 1:224:117384. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117384. Epub 2020 Sep 17.


Theories of human consciousness substantially vary in the proposed spatial extent of brain activity associated with conscious perception as well as in the assumed functional alterations within the involved brain regions. Here, we investigate which local and global changes in brain activity accompany conscious somatosensory perception following electrical finger nerve stimulation, and whether there are whole-brain functional network alterations by means of graph metrics. Thirty-eight healthy participants performed a somatosensory detection task and reported their decision confidence during fMRI. For conscious tactile perception in contrast to undetected near-threshold trials (misses), we observed increased BOLD activity in the precuneus, the intraparietal sulcus, the insula, the nucleus accumbens, the inferior frontal gyrus and the contralateral secondary somatosensory cortex. For misses compared to correct rejections, bilateral secondary somatosensory cortices, supplementary motor cortex and insula showed greater activations. The analysis of whole-brain functional network topology for hits, misses and correct rejections, did not result in any significant differences in modularity, participation, clustering or path length, which was supported by Bayes factor statistics. In conclusion, for conscious somatosensory perception, our results are consistent with an involvement of (probably) domain-general brain areas (precuneus, insula, inferior frontal gyrus) in addition to somatosensory regions; our data do not support the notion of specific changes in graph metrics associated with conscious experience. For the employed somatosensory submodality of fine electrical current stimulation, this speaks for a global broadcasting of sensory content across the brain without substantial reconfiguration of the whole-brain functional network resulting in an integrative conscious experience.

Keywords: Consciousness; Functional connectivity; Graph theory; Perceptual awareness; Somatosensory processing; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Benchmarking
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Stimulation / methods
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Touch Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult