Observational learning of new movement sequences is reflected in fronto-parietal coherence

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Abstract

Mankind is unique in her ability for observational learning, i.e. the transmission of acquired knowledge and behavioral repertoire through observation of others' actions. In the present study we used electrophysiological measures to investigate brain mechanisms of observational learning. Analysis investigated the possible functional coupling between occipital (alpha) and motor (mu) rhythms operating in the 10 Hz frequency range for translating "seeing" into "doing". Subjects observed movement sequences consisting of six consecutive left or right hand button presses directed at one of two target-buttons for subsequent imitation. Each movement sequence was presented four times, intervened by short pause intervals for sequence rehearsal. During a control task subjects observed the same movement sequences without a requirement for subsequent reproduction. Although both alpha and mu rhythms desynchronized during the imitation task relative to the control task, modulations in alpha and mu power were found to be largely independent from each other over time, arguing against a functional coupling of alpha and mu generators during observational learning. This independence was furthermore reflected in the absence of coherence between occipital and motor electrodes overlaying alpha and mu generators. Instead, coherence analysis revealed a pair of symmetric fronto-parietal networks, one over the left and one over the right hemisphere, reflecting stronger coherence during observation of movements than during pauses. Individual differences in fronto-parietal coherence were furthermore found to predict imitation accuracy. The properties of these networks, i.e. their fronto-parietal distribution, their ipsilateral organization and their sensitivity to the observation of movements, match closely with the known properties of the mirror neuron system (MNS) as studied in the macaque brain. These results indicate a functional dissociation between higher order areas for observational learning (i.e. parts of the MNS as reflected in 10 Hz coherence measures) and peripheral structures (i.e. lateral occipital gyrus for alpha; central sulcus for mu) that provide low-level support for observation and motor imagery of action sequences.

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van der Helden, J., van Schie, H. T., & Rombouts, C. (2010). Observational learning of new movement sequences is reflected in fronto-parietal coherence. PLoS ONE, 5(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014482

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