An fMRI study of imitation: action representation and body schema.
Recent neuropsychological investigations of apraxia have led to new hypotheses about the representational defects associated with imitation impairments in neurological patients. This fMRI experiment investigated the relation between imitation and the body schema in healthy subjects. Experimental conditions were derived from a factorial plan, and participants were asked to watch a human model performing bodily gestures and then to execute either an identical or a different action, with the same or different limbs. Brain areas activated when subjects imitated the model were traced to the representation of the action (main effect of performing an identical action regardless of limb), to the body schema (using the same limb regardless of action), or to both. The first set of analyses yielded a network associated with visual perception, indicating that action representation is primarily visuospatial not motor, while the second analysis highlighted regions involved in body schema including the inferior parietal cortex and the insula. It is suggested that imitation of simple body gestures requires both a visuospatial description of the observed model, sustained by visual perception areas in the right occipitotemporal and superior parietal cortices and a visuospatial description of one's own body, supported by the left inferior parietal lobule. These results favor a model of praxis proposing that imitation deficits in left inferior parietal lobe patients with apraxia reflect primarily an impairment of the body schema, while deficits of praxis in right parietal patients are limited to gestures demanding in terms of visuospatial analysis.