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A neural signature for combined action observation and motor imagery? An fNIRS study into prefrontal activation, automatic imitation, and self–other perceptions

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Natalie Butcher, Dr Ryan KennyORCiD, Dr Daniel EavesORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Introduction: Research indicates that both observed and imagined actions can be represented in the brain as two parallel sensorimotor representations. One proposal is that higher order cognitive processes would align these two hypothetical action simulations. Methods:We investigated this hypothesis using an automatic imitation paradigm, with functional near-infrared spectroscopy recordings over the prefrontal cortex during different motor simulation states. On each trial, participants (n = 14) observed a picture of a rhythmical action (instructed action) followed by a distractor movie showing the same or different action. Participants then executed the instructed action. Distractor actions were manipulated to be fast or slow, and instructions were manipulated during distractor presentation: action observation (AO), combined action observation and motor imagery (AO+MI) and observe to imitate (intentional imitation). A pure motor imagery (MI) condition was also included. Results: Kinematic analyses showed that although distractor speed effects were significant under all instructions (shorter mean cycle times in execution for fast compared to slow trials), this imitation bias was significantly stronger for combined AO+MI than both AO and MI, and stronger for intentional imitation than the other three automatic imitation conditions. In the left prefrontal cortex, cerebral oxygenation was significantly greater for combined AO+MI than all other instructions. Participants reported that their representation of the self overlapped with the observed model significantly more during AO+MI than AO. Conclusion: Left prefrontal activation may therefore be a neural signature of AO+MI, supporting attentional switching between concurrent representations of self (MI, topdown) and other (AO, bottom-up) to increase imitation and perceived closeness

Publication metadata

Author(s): Emerson JR, Scott MW, vanSchaik P, Butcher N, Kenny RPW, Eaves DL

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Brain and Behavior

Year: 2022

Volume: 12

Issue: 2

Print publication date: 01/02/2022

Online publication date: 07/01/2022

Acceptance date: 12/10/2021

Date deposited: 10/01/2022

ISSN (electronic): 2162-3279

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


DOI: 10.1002/brb3.2407


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