The aim of the present positron emission tomography study was to measure the dynamic changes in cerebral activity before and after practice of an explicitly known sequence of foot movements when executed physically and to compare them to those elicited during motor imagery of the same movements. Nine healthy volunteers were scanned while performing both types of movement at an early phase of learning and after a 1-h training period of a sequence of dorsiflexions and plantarflexions with the left foot. These experimental conditions were compared directly, as well as to a perceptual control condition. Changes in regional cerebral blood flow associated with physical execution of the sequence early in the learning process were observed bilaterally in the dorsal premotor cortex and cerebellum, as well as in the left inferior parietal lobule. After training, however, most of these brain regions were no longer significantly activated, suggesting that they are critical for establishing the cognitive strategies and motor routines involved in executing sequential foot movements. By contrast, after practice, an increased level of activity was seen bilaterally in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and striatum, as well as in the left rostral portion of the anterior cingulate and a different region of the inferior parietal lobule, suggesting that these structures play an important role in the development of a long lasting representation of the sequence. Finally, as predicted, a similar pattern of dynamic changes was observed in both phases of learning during the motor imagery conditions. This last finding suggests that the cerebral plasticity occurring during the incremental acquisition of a motor sequence executed physically is reflected by the covert production of this skilled behavior using motor imagery.
2002 Elsevier Science (USA).