The fact that action observation, motor imagery and execution are associated with partially overlapping increases in parieto-frontal areas has been interpreted as evidence for reliance of these behaviors on a common system of motor representations. However, studies that include all three conditions within a single paradigm are rare, and consequently, there is a dearth of knowledge concerning the distinct mechanisms involved in these functions. Here we report key differences in neural representations subserving observation, imagery, and synchronous imitation of a repetitive bimanual finger-tapping task using fMRI under conditions in which visual stimulation is carefully controlled. Relative to rest, observation, imagery, and synchronous imitation are all associated with widespread increases in cortical activity. Importantly, when effects of visual stimulation are properly controlled, each of these conditions is found to have its own unique neural signature. Relative to observation or imagery, synchronous imitation shows increased bilateral activity along the central sulcus (extending into precentral and postcentral gyri), in the cerebellum, supplementary motor area (SMA), parietal operculum, and several motor-related subcortical areas. No areas show greater increases for imagery vs. synchronous imitation; however, relative to synchronous imitation, observation is associated with greater increases in caudal SMA activity than synchronous imitation. Compared to observation, imagery increases activation in pre-SMA and left inferior frontal cortex, while no areas show the inverse effect. Region-of-interest (ROI) analyses reveal that areas involved in bimanual open-loop movements respond most to synchronous imitation (primary sensorimotor, classic SMA, and cerebellum), and less vigorously to imagery and observation. The differential activity between conditions suggests an alternative hierarchical model in which these behaviors all rely on partially independent mechanisms.
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