This systematic review aimed to summarise and critically appraise the evidence for the effect of bodily illusions on corticomotoneuronal excitability.
Five databases were searched, with two independent reviewers completing study inclusion, risk of bias, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) reporting quality, and data extraction. Included studies evaluated the effect of an illusion that altered perception of the body (and/or its movement) on excitability of motor circuitry in healthy, adult, human participants. Studies were required to: use TMS to measure excitability and/or inhibition; report quantitative outcomes (e.g., motor evoked potentials); compare the illusion to a control or active comparison condition; evaluate that an illusion had occurred (e.g., measured illusion strength/presence).
Of 2,257 studies identified, 11 studies (14 experiments) were included, evaluating kinaesthetic illusions (n = 5), a rubber hand illusion (RHI) paradigm (n = 5), and a missing limb illusion (n = 1). Kinaesthetic illusions (induced via vision/tendon vibration) increased corticomotoneuronal excitability. Conflicting effects were found for traditional, visuotactile RHIs of a static hand. However, embodying a hand and then observing it move ("self-action") resulted in decreased corticomotoneuronal excitability and increased silent period duration (a measure of Gamma-Aminobutynic acid [GABA]B-mediated intracortical inhibition in motor cortex), with the opposite occurring (increased excitability, decreased inhibition) when the fake hand was not embodied prior to observing movement ("other-action"). Visuomotor illusions manipulating agency had conflicting results, but in the lower risk study, illusory agency over movement resulted in a relative decrease in corticomotoneuronal excitability. Last, an illusion of a missing limb reduced corticomotoneuronal excitability.
While evidence for the effect of bodily illusions on corticomotoneuronal excitability was limited (only 14 experiments) and had a high risk of bias, kinaesthetic illusions and illusions of embodying a hand (and seeing it move), had consistent effects. Future investigations into the role of embodiment and the illusion strength on corticomotoneuronal excitability and inhibition are warranted.