A neural signature for combined action observation and motor imagery? An fNIRS study into prefrontal activation, automatic imitation, and self–other perceptions

Jonathan Emerson, Matthew Scott, Paul Van Schaik, Natalie Butcher, Ryan Kenny, Daniel Eaves

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Abstract

Introduction: Research indicates that both observed and imagined actions can be represented in the brain as two parallel sensorimotor representations. One proposal is that higher order cognitive processes would align these two hypothetical action simulations. Methods: We investigated this hypothesis using an automatic imitation paradigm, with functional near-infrared spectroscopy recordings over the prefrontal cortex during different motor simulation states. On each trial, participants (n = 14) observed a picture of a rhythmical action (instructed action) followed by a distractor movie showing the same or different action. Participants then executed the instructed action. Distractor actions were manipulated to be fast or slow, and instructions were manipulated during distractor presentation: action observation (AO), combined action observation and motor imagery (AO+MI) and observe to imitate (intentional imitation). A pure motor imagery (MI) condition was also included. Results: Kinematic analyses showed that although distractor speed effects were significant under all instructions (shorter mean cycle times in execution for fast compared to slow trials), this imitation bias was significantly stronger for combined AO+MI than both AO and MI, and stronger for intentional imitation than the other three automatic imitation conditions. In the left prefrontal cortex, cerebral oxygenation was significantly greater for combined AO+MI than all other instructions. Participants reported that their representation of the self overlapped with the observed model significantly more during AO+MI than AO. Conclusion: Left prefrontal activation may therefore be a neural signature of AO+MI, supporting attentional switching between concurrent representations of self (MI, top-down) and other (AO, bottom-up) to increase imitation and perceived closeness.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBrain and Behavior
Early online date7 Jan 2022
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Jan 2022

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