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PLoS One. 2014 Jun 9;9(6):e99401. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099401. eCollection 2014.

Observed manipulation enhances left fronto-parietal activations in the processing of unfamiliar tools.

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Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Dept. of Neuropsychology, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany; International Graduate School of Neuroscience, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany.
Division Neuroscience, San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milano, Italy; Department of Nuclear Medicine, San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milano, Italy.
Department of Nuclear Medicine, San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milano, Italy; Faculty of Psychology, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milano, Italy.
Institute of Experimental Psychology, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany.


Tools represent a special class of objects, as functional details of tools can afford certain actions. In addition, information gained via prior experience with tools can be accessed on a semantic level, providing a basis for meaningful object interactions. Conceptual representations of tools also encompass knowledge about tool manipulation which can be acquired via direct (active manipulation) or indirect (observation of others manipulating objects) motor experience. The present study aimed to explore the impact of observation of manipulation on the neural processing of previously unfamiliar, manipulable objects. Brain activity was assessed by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging while participants accomplished a visual matching task involving pictures of the novel objects before and after they received object-related training. Three training session in which subjects observed an experimenter manipulating one set of objects and visually explored another set of objects were used to make subjects familiar with the tools and to allow the formation of new tool representations. A control object set was not part of the training. Training-related brain activation increases were found for observed manipulation objects compared to not trained objects in a left-hemispheric network consisting of inferior frontal gyrus (iFG) pars opercularis and triangularis and supramarginal/angular gyrus. This illustrates that direct manipulation experience is not required to elicit tool-associated activation changes in the action system. While the iFG activation might indicate a close relationship between the areas involved in tool representation and those involved in observational knowledge acquisition, the parietal activation is discussed in terms of non-semantic effects of object affordances and hand-tool spatial relationships.

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