The functional role of dorso-lateral premotor cortex during mental rotation: an event-related fMRI study separating cognitive processing steps using a novel task paradigm

Claus Lamm, Christian Windischberger, Ewald Moser, Herbert Bauer
NeuroImage 2007 July 15, 36 (4): 1374-86
Subjects deciding whether two objects presented at angular disparity are identical or mirror versions of each other usually show response times that linearly increase with the angle between objects. This phenomenon has been termed mental rotation. While there is widespread agreement that parietal cortex plays a dominant role in mental rotation, reports concerning the involvement of motor areas are less consistent. From a theoretical point of view, activation in motor areas suggests that mental rotation relies upon visuo-motor rather than visuo-spatial processing alone. However, the type of information that is processed by motor areas during mental rotation remains unclear. In this study we used event-related fMRI to assess whether activation in parietal and dorsolateral premotor areas (dPM) during mental rotation is distinctively related to processing spatial orientation information. Using a newly developed task paradigm we explicitly separated the processing steps (encoding, mental rotation proper and object matching) required by mental rotation tasks and additionally modulated the amount of spatial orientation information that had to be processed. Our results show that activation in dPM during mental rotation is not strongly modulated by the processing of spatial orientation information, and that activation in dPM areas is strongest during mental rotation proper. The latter finding suggests that dPM is involved in more generalized processes such as visuo-spatial attention and movement anticipation. We propose that solving mental rotation tasks is heavily dependent upon visuo-motor processes and evokes neural processing that may be considered as an implicit simulation of actual object rotation.

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