Behavioral studies reveal that imitation performance and the motor system are strongly influenced by the goal of the action to be performed. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the effect of explicit action goals on neural activity during imitation. Subjects imitated index finger movements in the absence and presence of visible goals (red dots that were reached for by the finger movement). Finger movements were either ipsilateral or contralateral. The pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus showed increased blood oxygen level-dependent fMRI signal bilaterally for imitation of goal-oriented actions, compared with imitation of actions with no explicit goal. In addition, bilateral dorsal premotor areas demonstrated greater activity for goal-oriented actions, for contralateral movements and an interaction effect such that goal-oriented contralateral movements yielded the greatest activity. These results support the hypothesis that areas relevant to motor preparation and motor execution are tuned to coding goal-oriented actions and are in keeping with single-cell recordings revealing that neurons in area F5 of the monkey brain represent goal-directed aspects of actions.
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