Modulation of spinal excitability during observation of hand actions in humans

Eur J Neurosci. 2001 Jan;13(1):190-4. doi: 10.1046/j.0953-816x.2000.01368.x.


There is growing evidence that observation of actions performed by other individuals activates observer's cortical motor areas. This matching of observed actions on the observer's motor repertoire could be at the basis of action recognition. Here we investigated if action observation, in addition to cortical motor areas, involves also low level motor structures mimicking the observed actions as if they were performed by the observer. Spinal cord excitability was tested by eliciting the H-reflex in a finger flexor muscle (flexor digitorum superficialis) in humans looking at goal-directed hand actions presented on a TV screen. We found that, in the absence of any detectable muscle activity, there was in the observers a significant modulation of the monosynaptic reflex size, specifically related to the different phases of the observed movement. The recorded H-reflex rapidly increased in size during hand opening, it was depressed during hand closing and quickly recovered during object lifting. This modulation pattern is, however, opposite to that occurring when the recorded muscles are actually executing the observed action [Lemon et al. (1995) J. Neurosci., 15, 6145-56]. Considering that, when investigated at cortical level the modulation pattern of corticospinal excitability replicates the observed movements [Fadiga et al. (1995) J. Neurophysiol., 73, 2608-2611], this spinal 'inverted mirror' behaviour might be finalised to prevent the overt replica of the seen action.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Fingers / physiology
  • H-Reflex / physiology
  • Hand / physiology*
  • Hand Strength
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Videotape Recording
  • Visual Perception / physiology*