Mental steps: Differential activation of internal pacemakers in motor imagery and in mental imitation of gait

Hum Brain Mapp. 2017 Oct;38(10):5195-5216. doi: 10.1002/hbm.23725. Epub 2017 Jul 21.


Gait imagery and gait observation can boost the recovery of locomotion dysfunctions; yet, a neurologically justified rationale for their clinical application is lacking as much as a direct comparison of their neural correlates. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured the neural correlates of explicit motor imagery of gait during observation of in-motion videos shot in a park with a steady cam (Virtual Walking task). In a 2 × 2 factorial design, we assessed the modulatory effect of gait observation and of foot movement execution on the neural correlates of the Virtual Walking task: in half of the trials, the participants were asked to mentally imitate a human model shown while walking along the same route (mental imitation condition); moreover, for half of all the trials, the participants also performed rhythmic ankle dorsiflexion as a proxy for stepping movements. We found that, beyond the areas associated with the execution of lower limb movements (the paracentral lobule, the supplementary motor area, and the cerebellum), gait imagery also recruited dorsal premotor and posterior parietal areas known to contribute to the adaptation of walking patterns to environmental cues. When compared with mental imitation, motor imagery recruited a more extensive network, including a brainstem area compatible with the human mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR). Reduced activation of the MLR in mental imitation indicates that this more visually guided task poses less demand on subcortical structures crucial for internally generated gait patterns. This finding may explain why patients with subcortical degeneration benefit from rehabilitation protocols based on gait observation. Hum Brain Mapp 38:5195-5216, 2017. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: action observation; brainstem; elderly; fMRI; gait control; imitation; motor imagery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Ankle / physiology
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Foot / physiology
  • Gait / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Virtual Reality