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Front Hum Neurosci. 2013 Nov 27;7:819. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00819. eCollection 2013.

Using action observation to study superior motor performance: a pilot fMRI study.

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  • 1Ageing and Living Conditions Programme, Centre for Population Studies, Umeå University Umeå, Sweden ; Umeå centre for Functional Brain Imaging, Umeå University Umeå, Sweden.
  • 2Umeå centre for Functional Brain Imaging, Umeå University Umeå, Sweden.


The most efficient way to acquire motor skills may be through physical practice. Nevertheless, it has also been shown that action observation may improve motor performance. The aim of the present pilot study was to examine a potential action observation paradigm used to (1) capture the superior performance of expert athletes and (2) capture the underlying neural mechanisms of successful action observation in relation to task experience. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure regional blood flow while presenting videos of a hockey player shooting a puck toward a hockey goal. The videos (a total of 120) where stopped at different time frames with different amount of information provided, creating a paradigm with three different levels of difficulty to decide the fate of a shot. Since this was only a pilot study, we first tested the paradigm behaviorally on six elite expert hockey players, five intermediate players, and six non-hockey playing controls. The results showed that expert hockey players were significantly (p < 0.05) more accurate on deciding the fate of the action compared to the others. Thus, it appears as if the paradigm can capture superior performance of expert athletes (aim 1). We then tested three of the hockey players and three of the controls on the same paradigm in the MRI scanner to investigate the underlying neural mechanisms of successful action anticipation. The imaging results showed that when expert hockey players observed and correctly anticipated situations, they recruited motor and temporal regions of the brain. Novices, on the other hand, relied on visual regions during observation and prefrontal regions during action decision. Thus, the results from the imaging data suggest that different networks of the brain are recruited depending on task experience (aim 2). In conclusion, depending on the level of motor skill of the observer, when correctly anticipating actions different neural systems will be recruited.


action observation; cognitive neuroscience; expert performance; fMRI; motor representations

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