Role of the parietal cortex in predicting incoming actions

Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 2;59(1):556-64. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.046. Epub 2011 Jul 23.


Animal and human studies have shown that the parietal and the ventral premotor cortices constitute the neural substrate of the so-called mirror system. The word "mirror" originally referred to the discovery of neurons in non-human primates whose visual response echoes their motor response. This account proposes that action understanding and imitation depend on a mechanism which activates directly our own motor system as we observe the actions of other agents (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia, 2010). Single unit recording experiments have also demonstrated that parietal neurons have predictive activity and discharge well ahead of a planned movement. Interestingly, patients with parietal damage can show impairments in their ability to imitate or understand an observed action, but they have also difficulties in monitoring early phases of their own movement planning, be it simple reaching movements or more complex object-directed actions. The fact that both deficits may co-occur after a parietal lesion raises the question whether this reflects the impairment of a common mechanism. To address this question we examined EEG activity in patients with selective lesions in the inferior parietal lobe (N=6) who were requested to watch passively a video showing an actor grasping a colored object. The object's color cued the subject that the actor was about to move. We recorded the Readiness Potential (RP), a marker of motor preparation which also arises when preparing to observe an action (Kilner et al., 2004). Parietal patients' performance was compared to that of neurologically normal subjects (n=9) and patients with a ventral premotor cortex lesion (N=4). We show that neurologically normal subjects and premotor patients exhibit a significant RP prior to the observed action, whereas no such RP is observed in parietal patients. Our results indicate that parietal cortex injury alters the ability to monitor the early planning phases not only of one's own actions but those of other agents as well. We speculate that parietal activity during action observation does not only or essentially reflect a mirroring process, as recently proposed by mirror neurons' account, but involve instead an anticipatory process which arises through prior learning and predictive mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Contingent Negative Variation / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mirror Neurons / physiology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted