Bilateral motor resonance evoked by observation of a one-hand movement: role of the primary motor cortex

Paola Borroni, Marcella Montagna, Gabriella Cerri, Fausto Baldissera
European Journal of Neuroscience 2008, 28 (7): 1427-35
In humans, observation of movement performed by others evokes a subliminal motor resonant response, probably mediated by the mirror neurone system, which reproduces the motor commands needed to execute the observed movement with good spatial and temporal fidelity. Motor properties of the resonant response were here investigated with the ultimate goal of understanding the principles operating in the transformation from observation to internal reproduction of movement. Motor resonance was measured as the modulation of excitability of spinal motoneurones, evoked by the observation of a cyclic flexion-extension of one hand. The first two experiments showed that the observation of a one-hand movement always evoked a bimanual resonant response independent of which hand was observed and that these bilateral responses were consistently phase-linked. H-reflexes simultaneously recorded in right and left flexor carpi radialis muscles were always modulated 'in-phase' with each other. The goal of the third experiment was to define the role of primary motor cortex in the bilateral resonant response. Bilateral H-reflexes were recorded during a temporary inactivation induced by transcranial magnetic stimulation over the left cortical hand motor area of observers. The finding that such cortical depression abolished the H-reflex modulation of only the right flexor carpi radialis motoneurones, leaving it unchanged on the left side, suggested that both primary motor areas were activated by the premotor cortex and transmit the resonant activation through crossed corticospinal pathways. The data provide further evidence that the subliminal activation of motor pathways induced by movement observation is organized according to general rules shared with the control of voluntary movement.

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