Much evidence has now accumulated demonstrating and quantifying the extent of shared regional brain activation for observation and execution of speech. However, the nature of the actual networks that implement these functions, i.e., both the brain regions and the connections among them, and the similarities and differences across these networks has not been elucidated. The current study aims to characterize formally a network for observation and imitation of syllables in the healthy adult brain and to compare their structure and effective connectivity. Eleven healthy participants observed or imitated audiovisual syllables spoken by a human actor. We constructed four structural equation models to characterize the networks for observation and imitation in each of the two hemispheres. Our results show that the network models for observation and imitation comprise the same essential structure but differ in important ways from each other (in both hemispheres) based on connectivity. In particular, our results show that the connections from posterior superior temporal gyrus and sulcus to ventral premotor, ventral premotor to dorsal premotor, and dorsal premotor to primary motor cortex in the left hemisphere are stronger during imitation than during observation. The first two connections are implicated in a putative dorsal stream of speech perception, thought to involve translating auditory speech signals into motor representations. Thus, the current results suggest that flow of information during imitation, starting at the posterior superior temporal cortex and ending in the motor cortex, enhances input to the motor cortex in the service of speech execution.
Keywords: action observation; brain imaging; effective connectivity; language; mirror neuron; speech; structural equation modeling; ventral premotor cortex.