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J Neurosci. 2006 Dec 20;26(51):13194-201.

Modulation of neural activity during observational learning of actions and their sequential orders.

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  • 1Lewis Center for Neuroimaging and Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1227, USA.


How does the brain transform perceptual representations of others' actions into motor representations that can be used to guide behavior? Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record human brain activity while subjects watched others construct multipart objects under varied task demands. We find that relative to resting baseline, passive action observation increases activity within inferior frontal and parietal cortices implicated in action encoding (mirror system) and throughout a distributed network of areas involved in motor representation, including dorsal premotor cortex, pre-supplementary motor area, cerebellum, and basal ganglia (experiments 1 and 2). Relative to passive observation, these same areas show increased activity when subjects observe with the intention to subsequently reproduce component actions using the demonstrated sequential procedures (experiment 1). Observing the same actions with the intention of reproducing component actions, but without the requirement to use the demonstrated sequential procedure, increases activity in the same regions, although to a lesser degree (experiment 2). These findings demonstrate that when attempting to learn behaviors through observation, the observers' intentions modulate responses in a widely distributed network of cortical and subcortical regions implicated previously in action encoding and/or motor representation. Among these regions, only activity within the right intraparietal sulcus predicts the accuracy with which observed procedures are subsequently performed. Successful formation of motor representations of sequential procedures through observational learning is dependent on computations implemented within this parietal region.

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