Modulation of cortical activity during different imitative behaviors.
Imitation is a basic form of motor learning during development. We have a preference to imitate the actions of others as if looking in a mirror (specular imitation: i.e., when the actor moves the left hand, the imitator moves the right hand) rather than with the anatomically congruent hand (anatomic imitation: i.e., actor and imitator both moving the right hand). We hypothesized that this preference reflects changes in activity in previously described frontoparietal cortical areas involved in directly matching observed and executed actions (mirror neuron areas). We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity in normal volunteers imitating left and right hand movements with their right hand. Bilateral inferior frontal and right posterior parietal cortex were more active during specular imitation compared with anatomic imitation and control motor tasks. Furthermore this same pattern of activity was also observed in the rostral part of the supplementary motor area (SMA-proper) of the right hemisphere. These findings suggest that the degree of involvement of frontoparietal mirror areas in imitation depends on the nature of the imitative behavior, ruling out a linguistic mediation of these areas in imitation. Moreover, activity in the SMA appears to be tightly coupled to frontoparietal mirror areas when subjects copy the actions of others.