Brain Imaging and Behavior

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 565–576 | Cite as

The effect of action observation/execution on mirror neuron system recruitment: an fMRI study in healthy individuals

  • Roberto Gatti
  • Maria A. Rocca
  • Silvia Fumagalli
  • Erik Cattrysse
  • Eric Kerckhofs
  • Andrea Falini
  • Massimo FilippiEmail author
Original Research


Action observation and execution activate regions that are part of the motor and mirror neuron systems (MNS). Using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), we defined the presence and extent of MNS activation during three different motor tasks with the dominant, right-upper limb in healthy individuals. The influence of the modality of task administration (execution, observation, observation and execution) was also investigated. fMRI scans during the execution (E) of a motor task, the observation (O) of a video showing the same task performed by another person and the simultaneous observation and execution (OE) of the task were obtained from three groups of healthy subjects (15 subjects per group) randomized to perform: a simple motor (SM) task, a complex motor (CM) task and a finalistic motor (FM) task. Manual dexterity was assessed using the 9-hole peg test and maximum finger tapping frequency. MNS activation was higher during FM than SM or CM tasks, independently from the modality of administration (E, O, or OE). Inferior frontal gyrus recruitment was more significant during SM than CM tasks in the E and O conditions. Compared to SM and FM, CM task resulted in increased recruitment of brain regions involved in complex motor task performance. Compared to O and E, OE resulted in the recruitment of additional, specific, brain areas in the cerebellum, temporal and parietal lobes. The modality of administration and the type of task modulated MNS recruitment during motor acts. This might have practical implications for the set-up of individualized motor rehabilitation strategies.


Mirror neuron system Action observation Action execution Functional magnetic resonance imaging Healthy individuals 


Compliance with ethical standards

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


Partially supported by grants from FISM (FISM 2012/R/15) and the Italian Ministry of Health (RF-2011-02,350,374).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberto Gatti
    • 1
  • Maria A. Rocca
    • 2
  • Silvia Fumagalli
    • 1
    • 2
  • Erik Cattrysse
    • 3
  • Eric Kerckhofs
    • 3
  • Andrea Falini
    • 4
  • Massimo Filippi
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Laboratory of Analysis and Rehabilitation of Motor Function San Raffaele Scientific InstituteVita-SaluteMilanItaly
  2. 2.Neuroimaging Research Unit, Institute of Experimental Neurology, Division of Neuroscience, San Raffaele Scientific InstituteVita-SaluteMilanItaly
  3. 3.Faculty of Physical Education and PhysiotherapyVrije Universiteit BrusselBruxellesBelgium
  4. 4.Department of Neuroradiology, San Raffaele Scientific InstituteVita-SaluteMilanItaly

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