Mirror neurons were discovered by accident but in fact have provided us with a potent rehabilitation strategy. Observing someone else perform a meaningful task evokes activity in the ‘watchers’ brain that is similar to that of the ‘doer’. In terms of motor training, this is a way of initiating the process from a baseline that is appropriate for an individual who has difficulty moving due to sensitivity or pathology (eg/ stroke). This knowledge also has implications for the way in which we demonstrate movements to patients and indeed the way in which we gesticulate!
Here is VS Ramachandran talking about mirror neurons, followed by some recent articles and papers:
What’s so special about mirror neurons?
In the early 1990s, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma made a surprising discovery: Certain groups of neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fired not only when a monkey performed an action – grabbing an apple out of a box, for instance – but also when the monkey watched someone else performing that action; and even when the monkey heard someone performing the action in another room.
In short, even though these “mirror neurons” were part of the brain’s motor system, they seemed to be correlated not with specific movements, but with specific goals.
Annu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:653-70. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604.
Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons.
Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Social Behavior, Brain Research Institute, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a convergence between cognitive models of imitation, constructs derived from social psychology studies on mimicry and empathy, and recent empirical findings from the neurosciences. The ideomotor framework of human actions assumes a common representational format for action and perception that facilitates imitation. Furthermore, the associative sequence learning model of imitation proposes that experience-based Hebbian learning forms links between sensory processing of the actions of others and motor plans. Social psychology studies have demonstrated that imitation and mimicry are pervasive, automatic, and facilitate empathy. Neuroscience investigations have demonstrated physiological mechanisms of mirroring at single-cell and neural-system levels that support the cognitive and social psychology constructs. Why were these neural mechanisms selected, and what is their adaptive advantage? Neural mirroring solves the “problem of other minds” (how we can access and understand the minds of others) and makes intersubjectivity possible, thus facilitating social behavior.
Arch Neurol. 2009 May;66(5):557-60. doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2009.41.
The mirror neuron system.
Cattaneo L, Rizzolatti G.
Dipartimento di Neuroscienze, Sezione Fisiologia, Università di Parma, via Volturno 39, 43100 Parma, Italy.
Mirror neurons are a class of neurons, originally discovered in the premotor cortex of monkeys, that discharge both when individuals perform a given motor act and when they observe others perform that same motor act. Ample evidence demonstrates the existence of a cortical network with the properties of mirror neurons (mirror system) in humans. The human mirror system is involved in understanding others’ actions and their intentions behind them, and it underlies mechanisms of observational learning. Herein, we will discuss the clinical implications of the mirror system.
Neurosci Lett. 2013 Apr 12;540:37-42. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2012.11.039. Epub 2012 Dec 1.
Action observation versus motor imagery in learning a complex motor task: a short review of literature and a kinematics study.
Gatti R, Tettamanti A, Gough PM, Riboldi E, Marinoni L, Buccino G.
Department of Clinical Neuroscience, San Raffaele Scientific Institute and Vita Salute University, Milan, Italy.
Both motor imagery and action observation have been shown to play a role in learning or re-learning complex motor tasks. According to a well accepted view they share a common neurophysiological basis in the mirror neuron system. Neurons within this system discharge when individuals perform a specific action and when they look at another individual performing the same or a motorically related action. In the present paper, after a short review of literature on the role of action observation and motor imagery in motor learning, we report the results of a kinematics study where we directly compared motor imagery and action observation in learning a novel complex motor task. This involved movement of the right hand and foot in the same angular direction (in-phase movement), while at the same time moving the left hand and foot in an opposite angular direction (anti-phase movement), all at a frequency of 1Hz. Motor learning was assessed through kinematics recording of wrists and ankles. The results showed that action observation is better than motor imagery as a strategy for learning a novel complex motor task, at least in the fast early phase of motor learning. We forward that these results may have important implications in educational activities, sport training and neurorehabilitation.
Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players – full article here
Salvatore M Aglioti, Paola Cesari, Michela Romani & Cosimo Urgesi
We combined psychophysical and transcranial magnetic stimulation studies to investigate the dynamics of action anticipation and its underlying neural correlates in professional basketball players. Athletes predicted the success of free shots at a basket earlier and more accurately than did individuals with comparable visual experience (coaches or sports journalists) and novices. Moreover, performance between athletes and the other groups differed before the ball was seen to leave the model’s hands, suggesting that athletes predicted the basket shot’s fate by reading the body kinematics. Both visuo-motor and visual experts showed a selective increase of motor-evoked potentials during observation of basket shots. However, only athletes showed a time-speciﬁc motor activation during observation of erroneous basket throws. Results suggest that achieving excellence in sports may be related to the ﬁne-tuning of speciﬁc anticipatory ‘resonance’ mechanisms that endow elite athletes’ brains with the ability to predict others’ actions ahead of their realization.
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