Both motor imagery (MI) and action observation (AO) trigger the activation of the neurocognitive mechanisms that underlie the planning and execution of voluntary movements in a manner that resembles how the action is performed in a real way. The main objective of the present study was to compare the autonomic nervous system (ANS) response in an isolated MI group compared to a combined MI + AO group. The mental tasks were based on two simple movements that are recorded in the revised movement imagery questionnaire in third-person perspective. The secondary objective of the study was to test if there was any relationship between the ANS variables and the ability to generate mental motor imagery, the mental chronometry and the level of physical activity. The main outcomes that were measured were heart rate, respiratory rate and electrodermal activity. A Biopac MP150 system, a measurement device of autonomic changes, was used for the quantification and evaluation of autonomic variables. Forty five asymptomatic subjects were selected and randomized in three groups: isolated MI, MI + AO and control group (CG). In regards to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), no differences were observed between MI and MI + AO groups (p > .05), although some differences were found between both groups when compared to the CG (p < .05). Additionally, even though no associations were reported between the ANS variables and the ability to generate mental motor imagery, moderate-strong positive associations were found in mental chronometry and the level of physical activity. Our results suggest that MI and MI + AO, lead to an activation of the SNS, although there are no significant differences between the two groups. Based on results obtained, we suggest that tasks of low complexity, providing a visual input through the AO does not facilitates their subsequent motor imagination. A higher level of physical activity as well as a longer time to perform mental task, seem to be associated with a greater increase in the ANS response.
Keywords: Action observation; Autonomic nervous system; Mental practice; Motor imagery.