Autonomic nervous system activities during motor imagery in elite athletes

J Clin Neurophysiol. 2004 May-Jun;21(3):170-9. doi: 10.1097/00004691-200405000-00005.


Motor imagery (MI), a mental simulation of voluntary motor actions, has been used as a training method for athletes for many years. It is possible that MI techniques might similarly be useful as part of rehabilitative strategies to help people regain skills lost as a consequence of diseases or stroke. Mental activity and stress induce several different autonomic responses as part of the behavioral response to movement (e.g., motor anticipation) and as part of the central planning and preprogramming of movement. However, the interrelationships between MI, the autonomic responses, and the motor system have not yet been worked out. The authors compare a number of autonomic responses (respiration, heart rate, electro skin resistance) and motoneuron excitability (soleus H-reflex) in elite and nonelite speed skaters during MI. In contrast to the nonelite athletes, MI of elite speed skaters is characterized by larger changes in heart rate and respiration, a greater reliance on an internal perspective for MI, a more vivid MI, a more accurate correspondence between the MI and actual race times, and decreased motoneuron excitability. Two observations suggest that the changes in the autonomic responses and motoneuron excitability for the elite speed skaters are related to the effects of central motor programming: (1) there was no correlation between the autonomic responses for MI and those recorded during mental arithmetic; and (2) mental arithmetic did not significantly alter motoneuron activity. It is suggested that in elite speed skaters, the descending neural mechanisms that reduce motoneuron excitability are activated even when full, vivid MI is performed internally. These inhibitory responses of the motor system may enhance actual motor performance under conditions of remarkably high mental stress, such as that which occurs in the Olympic games.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Respiration
  • Skating / physiology*
  • Skating / psychology*
  • Sports / physiology
  • Sports / psychology
  • Statistics, Nonparametric