Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 236, Issue 2, pp 577–586 | Cite as

Interference of action perception on action production increases across the adult life span

  • Stephanie Wermelinger
  • Anja Gampe
  • Jannis Behr
  • Moritz M. Daum
Research Article


Action perception and action production are assumed to be based on an internal simulation process that involves the sensorimotor system. This system undergoes changes across the life span and is assumed to become less precise with age. In the current study, we investigated how increasing age affects the magnitude of interference in action production during simultaneous action perception. In a task adapted from Brass et al. (Brain Cogn 44(2):124–143, 2000), we asked participants (aged 20–80 years) to respond to a visually presented finger movement and/or symbolic cue by executing a previously defined finger movement. Action production was assessed via participants’ reaction times. Results show that participants were slower in trials in which they were asked to ignore an incongruent finger movement compared to trials in which they had to ignore an incongruent symbolic cue. Moreover, advancing age was shown to accentuate this effect. We suggest that the internal simulation of the action becomes less precise with age making the sensorimotor system more susceptible to perturbations such as the interference of a concurrent action perception.


Action simulation Sensorimotor system Motor performance Ageing Imitation inhibition 



During the work on her dissertation, Stephanie Wermelinger was a pre-doctoral fellow of the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE,; participating institutions: Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, University of Michigan, University of Virginia, University of Zurich). The authors want to thank Vanessa Meili for help with data collection.


This project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant number: S-63216-03-01).

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical statement

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Aglioti SM, Cesari P, Romani M, Urgesi C (2008) Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nat Neurosci 11(9):1109–1116. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Bertenthal BI, Longo MR, Kosobud A (2006) Imitative response tendencies following observation of intransitive actions. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 32(2):210–225. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Blakemore SJ, Frith C (2005) The role of motor contagion in the prediction of action. Neuropsychologia 43:260–267. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Boyer TW, Longo MR, Bertenthal BI (2012) Is automatic imitation a specialized form of stimulus—response compatibility? Dissociating imitative and spatial compatibilities. Acta Physiol (Oxf) 139(3):440–448. Google Scholar
  5. Brass M, Bekkering H, Wohlschläger A, Prinz W (2000) Compatibility between observed and executed finger movements: comparing symbolic, spatial, and imitative cues. Brain Cogn 44(2):124–143. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Brass M, Bekkering H, Prinz W (2001a) Movement observation affects movement execution in a simple response task. Acta Physiol (Oxf) 106:3–22. Google Scholar
  7. Brass M, Zysset S, Von Cramon DY (2001b) The inhibition of imitative response tendencies. Neuro Image 14:1416–1423. PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Brazier E, Harper R, Jones NMB, Cathain AO, Thomas KJ, Usherwood T, Westlake L (1992). Validating the SF-36 health survey questionnaire: new outcome for primary care. Br Med J: Gen Pract, 305, 160–164. Google Scholar
  9. Cabeza R (2002) Hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults: the HAROLD model. Psychol Aging 17(1):85–100. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Catmur C, Heyes C (2011) Time course analyses confirm independence of imitative and spatial compatibility. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 37(2):409–421. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Costello MC, Bloesch EK (2017) Are older adults less embodied? A review of age effects through the lens of embodied cognition. Front Psychol 8:1–18. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. D’Ausilio A, Pulvermüller F, Salmas P, Bufalari I, Begliomini C, Fadiga L (2009) The motor somatotopy of speech perception. Curr Biol 10:381–385. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. D’Ausilio A, Maffongelli L, Bartoli E, Campanella M, Ferrari E, Berry J, Fadiga L (2014). Listening to speech recruits specific tongue motor synergies as revealed by transcranial magnetic stimulation and tissue-Doppler ultrasound imaging. Philos Transac R Soc B, 369(20130418).
  14. Diersch N, Cross ES, Stadler W, Schütz-Bosbach S, Rieger M (2012) Representing others’ actions: the role of expertise in the aging mind. Psychol Res 76(4):525–541. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Diersch N, Mueller K, Cross ES, Stadler W, Rieger M, Schütz-Bosbach S (2013). Action prediction in younger versus older adults: neural correlates of motor familiarity. PLoS One, 8(5), e64195. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  16. Diersch N, Jones AL, Cross ES (2016) The timing and precision of action prediction in the aging brain. Hum Brain Mapp 37(1):54–66. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Edwards MG, Humphreys GW, Castiello U (2003) Motor facilitation following action observation: a behavioural study in prehensile action. Brain Cogn 53:495–502. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Pavesi G, Rizzolatti G (1995) Motor facilitation during action observation: a magnetic stimulation study. J Neurophysiol 73(6):2608–2611CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Gabbard C, Caçola P, Cordova A (2011) Is there an advanced aging effect on the ability to mentally represent action? Arch Gerontol Geriatr 53(2):206–209. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Gangitano M, Mottaghy FM, Pascual-Leone A (2001) Phase-specific modulation of cortical motor output during movement observation. NeuroReport 12(7):1489–1492. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Grafton ST (2009) Embodied cognition and the simulation of action to understand others. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156:97–117. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Hamilton A, Wolpert D, Frith U (2004) Your own action influences how you perceive another person’s action. Curr Biol 14:493–498. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Hardwick RM, Edwards MG (2012) Motor interference and facilitation arising from observed movement kinematics. Q J Exp Psychol 65(5):840–847. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hays RD, Morales LS (2001) The RAND-36 measure of health-related quality of life. Ann Med 33(5):350–357. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Hays RD, Sherbourne CD, Mazel RM (1993) The RAND 36-item health survey 1.0. Econ Eval 2:217–227Google Scholar
  26. Hecht H, Vogt S, Prinz W (2001) Motor learning enhances perceptual judgment: a case for action-perception transfer. Psychol Res 65:3–14. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Heuninckx S, Wenderoth N, Debaere F, Peeters R, Swinnen SP (2005) Neural basis of aging: the penetration of cognition into action control. J Neurosci 25(29):6787–6796. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Heuninckx S, Wenderoth N, Swinnen SP (2008) Systems neuroplasticity in the aging brain: Recruiting additional neural resources for successful motor performance in elderly persons. The Journal of Neuroscience 28(1):91–99. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Heuninckx S, Wenderoth N, Swinnen SP (2010) Age-related reduction in the differential pathways involved in internal and external movement generation. Neurobiol Aging 31:301–314. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Heyes C (2011). Automatic imitation. Psychol Bull, 137(3), 463–483. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Heyes C, Bird G, Johnson H, Haggard P (2005) Experience modulates automatic imitation. Cogn Brain Res 22:233–240. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Houx PJ, Jolles J (1993). Age-related decline of psychomotor speed: effects of age, brain health, sex, and education. Percept Motor Skills, 76, 195–211. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Houx PJ, Jolles J, Vreeling FW, Jolles J (1993) Stroop interference: aging effects assessed with the stroop color-word test. Exp Aging Res 19(3):209–224. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Jacobs A, Shiffrar M (2005) Walking perception by walking observers. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 31(1):157–169. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Jeannerod M (2001) Neural simulation of action: a unifying mechanism for motor cognition. NeuroImage 14:S103–S109. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Kilner JM, Paulignan Y, Blakemore SJ (2003) An interference effect of observed biological movement on action. Curr Biol 13:522–525. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Korsch M, Frühholz S, Herrmann M (2014) Ageing differentially affects neural processing of different conflict types—an fMRI study. Front Aging Neurosci 6:1–10. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Korsch M, Frühholz S, Herrmann M (2016) Conflict-specific aging effects mainly manifest in early information processing stages—an ERP study with different conflict types. Front Aging Neurosci 8:1–12. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Koski L, Wohlschläger A, Bekkering H, Woods P, Dubeau M-C, Mazziotta JC, Iacoboni M (2002) Modulation of motor and premotor activity during imitation of target-directed Aations. Cerebal Cortex 12(8):847–855. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Léonard G, Tremblay F (2008) Corticomotor facilitation associated with observation and imagery of hand actions is impaired in Parkinson’s disease. Exp Brain Res 185(2):249–257. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Maquestiaux F (2016) Qualitative attentional changes with age in doing two tasks at once. Psychon Bull Rev 23(1):54–61. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Ménoret M, Curie A, Portes V, Nazir TA, Paulignan Y (2013) Motor resonance facilitates movement execution: An ERP and kinematic study. Front Hum Neurosci 7:1–11. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Miall RC, Stanley J, Todhunter S, Levick C, Lindo S, Miall JD (2006) Performing hand actions assists the visual discrimination of similar hand postures. Neuropsychologia 44:966–976. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Mouthon AA, Ruffieux J, Keller M, Taube W (2016) Age-related differences in corticospinal excitability during observation and motor imagery of balance tasks. Front Aging Neurosci 8:1–9. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nedelko V, Hassa T, Hamzei F, Weiller C, Binkofski F, Schoenfeld MA, Dettmers C (2010) Age-independent activation in areas of the mirror neuron system during action observation and action imagery. A fMRI study. Restor Neurol Neurosci 28(6):737–747. PubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Nielson KA, Langenecker SA, Garavan H, Hartley A (2002) Differences in the functional neuroanatomy of inhibitory control across the adult life span. Psychol Aging 17(1):56–71. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Oldfield RC (1971) The assessment and analysis of handedness: the Edinburgh inventory. Neuropsychologia 9(1):97–113. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Personnier P, Paizis C, Ballay Y, Papaxanthis C (2008) Mentally represented motor actions in normal aging: II. The influence of the gravito-inertial context on the duration of overt and covert arm movements. Behav Brain Res 186(2):273–283. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Personnier P, Kubicki A, Laroche D, Papaxanthis C (2010) Temporal features of imagined locomotion in normal aging. Neurosci Lett 476(3):146–149. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Pezzulo G, Candidi M, Dindo H, Barca L (2013) Action simulation in the human brain: twelve questions. New Ideas Psychol 31(3):270–290. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Press C, Bird G, Heyes C (2005) Robotic movement elicits automatic imitation. Cogn Brain Res 25:632–640. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Press C, Gillmeister H, Heyes C (2007). Sensorimotor experience enhances automatic imitation of robotic action. Proc R Soc B, 274 (1625): 2509–2514. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Press C, Bird G, Walsh E, Heyes C (2008) Automatic imitation of intransitive actions. Brain Cogn 67(1):44–50. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Reuter E-M, Behrens M, Zschorlich VR (2015) Age-related differences in corticomotor facilitation indicate dedifferentiation in motor planning. Exp Gerontol 65:79–84. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Saimpont A, Mourey F, Manckoundia P, Pfitzenmeyer P, Pozzo T (2010) Aging affects the mental simulation/planning of the “rising from the floor” sequence. Arch Gerontol Geriatr 51:41–45. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Salthouse TA (1996). The processing-speed theory of adult age differences in cognition. Psychol Rev, 103(3).
  57. Seidler RD, Stelmach GE (1995) Reduction in sensorimotor control with age. Quest 47(3):386–394. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Seidler RD, Bernard JA, Burutolu TB, Fling BW, Gordon MT, Gwin JT, … Lipps DB (2010) Motor control and aging: Links to age-related brain structural, functional, and biochemical effects. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 34(5):721–733. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Sharma N, Baron JC (2014). Effects of healthy ageing on activation pattern within the primary motor cortex during movement and motor imagery: an fMRI study. PLoS One, 9 (6), 1–8. Google Scholar
  60. Skoura X, Papaxanthis C, Vinter A, Pozzo T (2005) Mentally represented motor actions in normal aging: I. Age effects on the temporal features of overt and covert execution of actions. Behav Brain Res 165:229–239. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Stadler W, Springer A, Parkinson J, Prinz W (2012) Movement kinematics affect action prediction: Comparing human to non-human point-light actions. Psychol Res 76(4):395–406. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Talelli P, Waddingham W, Ewas a, Rothwell JC, Ward NS (2008) The effect of age on task-related modulation of interhemispheric balance. Exp Brain Res 186(1):59–66. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Urgesi C, Moro V, Candidi M, Aglioti SM (2006) Mapping implied body actions in the human motor system. J Neurosci 26(30):7942–7949. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Valchev N, Tidoni E, Hamilton AF, Gazzola V, Avenanti A (2017). Primary somatosensory cortex necessary for the perception of weight from other people’s action: a continuous theta-burst TMS experiment. NeuroImage, 152, 195–206. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Ward NS (2006). Compensatory mechanisms in the aging motor system. Ageing Res Rev, 5(3), 239–254. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Ward NS, Frackowiak RSJ (2003). Age-related changes in the neural correlates of motor performance. Brain, 126(4), 873–888. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  67. West RL (1996) An application of prefrontal cortex function theory to cognitive aging. Psychol Bull 120(2):272–292. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Wiggett AJ, Hudson M, Tipper SP, Downing PE (2011) Learning associations between action and perception: Effects of incompatible training on body part and spatial priming. Brain Cogn 76(1):87–96. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Wohlschläger A, Bekkering H (2002) Is human imitation based on a mirror-neurone system? Some behavioural evidence. Exp Brain Res 143:335–341. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Zhu DC, Zacks RT, Slade JM (2010) Brain activation during interference resolution in young and older adults: An fMRI study. NeuroImage 50(2):810–817. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  71. Zimmermann P, Fimm B (2012) Tests for attentional performance (TAP). Herzogenrath, GermanyGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephanie Wermelinger
    • 1
  • Anja Gampe
    • 1
  • Jannis Behr
    • 1
  • Moritz M. Daum
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Neuroscience Center ZurichUniversity of Zurich and ETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations