Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 233, Issue 6, pp 1761–1771 | Cite as

Anaesthesia changes perceived finger width but not finger length

  • Lee D. WalshEmail author
  • Damon Hoad
  • John C. Rothwell
  • Simon C. Gandevia
  • Patrick Haggard
Research Article


The brain needs information about the size of the body to control our interactions with the environment. No receptor signals this information directly; the brain must determine body size from multiple sensory inputs and then store this information. This process is poorly understood, but somatosensory information is thought to play a role. In particular, anaesthetising a body part has been reported to make it feel bigger. Here, we report the first study to measure whether changes in body size following anaesthesia are uniform across dimensions (e.g. width and length). We blocked the digital nerves of ten human subjects with a clinical dose of local anaesthetic (1 % lignocaine) and again in separate sessions with a weaker dose (0.25 % lignocaine) and a saline control. Subjects reported the perceived size of their index finger by selecting templates from a set that varied in size and aspect ratio. We also measured changes in sensory signals that might contribute to the anaesthetic-induced changes using quantitative sensory testing. Subjects perceived their finger to be up to 32 % wider during anaesthesia when compared to during a saline control condition. However, changes in perceived length of the finger were much smaller (<5 %). Previous studies have shown a change in perceived body size with anaesthesia, but have assumed that the aspect ratio is preserved. Our data show that this is not the case. We suggest that nonuniform changes in perceived body size might be due to the brain increasing the body’s perimeter to protect it from further injury.


Anaesthesia Hand Body size Body image 



This work was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (of Australia), the EU FP7 Project VERE Work Package 1 and the European Research Council Advanced Grant HUMVOL.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical standard

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lee D. Walsh
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Damon Hoad
    • 3
  • John C. Rothwell
    • 3
  • Simon C. Gandevia
    • 2
  • Patrick Haggard
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Cognitive NeuroscienceUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Neuroscience Research Australia, University of New South WalesSydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Sobell Department of Motor Neuroscience and Movement Disorders, Institute of NeurologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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