Image_2_Impaired Tactile Temporal Discrimination in Patients With Hepatic Encephalopathy.TIF

The sensory system constantly receives stimuli from the external world. To discriminate two stimuli correctly as two temporally distinct events, the temporal distance or stimulus onset asynchrony (SOA) between the two stimuli has to exceed a specific threshold. If the SOA between two stimuli is shorter than this specific threshold, the two stimuli will be perceptually fused and perceived as one single stimulus. Patients with hepatic encephalopathy (HE) are known to show manifold perceptual impairments, including slowed visual temporal discrimination abilities as measured by the critical flicker frequency (CFF). Here, we hypothesized that HE patients are also impaired in their tactile temporal discrimination abilities and, thus, require a longer SOA between two tactile stimuli to perceive the stimuli as two temporally distinct events. To test this hypothesis, patients with varying grades of HE and age-matched healthy individuals performed a tactile temporal discrimination task. All participants received two tactile stimuli with varying SOA applied to their left index finger and reported how many distinct stimuli they perceived (“1” vs. “2”). HE patients needed a significantly longer SOA (138.0 ± 11.3 ms) between two tactile stimuli to perceive the stimuli as two temporally distinct events than healthy controls (78.6 ± 13.1 ms; p < 0.01). In addition, we found that the temporal discrimination ability in the tactile modality correlated positively with the temporal discrimination ability in the visual domain across all participants (i.e., negative correlation between tactile SOA and visual CFF: r = −0.37, p = 0.033). Our findings provide evidence that temporal tactile perception is substantially impaired in HE patients. In addition, the results suggest that tactile and visual discrimination abilities are affected in HE in parallel. This finding might argue for a common underlying pathophysiological mechanism. We argue that the known global slowing of neuronal oscillations in HE might represent such a common mechanism.