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Physiol Rev. 2014 Apr;94(2):655-706. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00009.2013.

Cortical mechanisms underlying the organization of goal-directed actions and mirror neuron-based action understanding.


Our understanding of the functions of motor system evolved remarkably in the last 20 years. This is the consequence not only of an increase in the amount of data on this system but especially of a paradigm shift in our conceptualization of it. Motor system is not considered anymore just a "producer" of movements, as it was in the past, but a system crucially involved in cognitive functions. In the present study we review the data on the cortical organization underlying goal-directed actions and action understanding. Our review is subdivided into two major parts. In the first part, we review the anatomical and functional organization of the premotor and parietal areas of monkeys and humans. We show that the parietal and frontal areas form circuits devoted to specific motor functions. We discuss, in particular, the visuo-motor transformation necessary for reaching and for grasping. In the second part we show how a specific neural mechanism, the mirror mechanism, is involved in understanding the action and intention of others. This mechanism is located in the same parieto-frontal circuits that mediate goal-directed actions. We conclude by indicating future directions for studies on the mirror mechanism and suggest some major topics for forthcoming research.

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