Whether motor and linguistic representations of actions share common neural structures has recently been the focus of an animated debate in cognitive neuroscience. Group studies with brain-damaged patients reported association patterns of praxic and linguistic deficits whereas single case studies documented double dissociations between the correct execution of gestures and their comprehension in verbal contexts. When the relationship between language and imitation was investigated, each ability was analysed as a unique process without distinguishing between possible subprocesses. However, recent cognitive models can be successfully used to account for these inconsistencies in the extant literature. In the present study, in 57 patients with left brain damage, we tested whether a deficit at imitating either meaningful or meaningless gestures differentially impinges on three distinct linguistic abilities (comprehension, naming and repetition). Based on the dual-pathway models, we predicted that praxic and linguistic performance would be associated when meaningful gestures are processed, and would dissociate for meaningless gestures. We used partial correlations to assess the association between patients' scores while accounting for potential confounding effects of aspecific factors such age, education and lesion size. We found that imitation of meaningful gestures significantly correlated with patients' performance on naming and repetition (but not on comprehension). This was not the case for the imitation of meaningless gestures. Moreover, voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping analysis revealed that damage to the angular gyrus specifically affected imitation of meaningless gestures, independent of patients' performance on linguistic tests. Instead, damage to the supramarginal gyrus affected not only imitation of meaningful gestures, but also patients' performance on naming and repetition. Our findings clarify the apparent conflict between associations and dissociations patterns previously observed in neuropsychological studies, and suggest that motor experience and language can interact when the two domains conceptually overlap.
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