To what degree mental imagery (MI) bears on the same neuronal processes as perception has been a central question in the neurophysiological study of imagery. Sensory-recruitment models suggest that imagery of sensory material heavily relies on the involvement of sensory cortices. Empirical evidence mainly stems from the study of visual imagery and suggests that it depends on the mentally imagined material whether hierarchically lower regions are recruited. However, evidence from other modalities is necessary to infer generalized principles. In this fMRI study we used the somatotopic organization of the primary somatosensory cortex (SI) to test in how far MI of tactile sensations activates topographically sensory brain areas. Participants (N = 19) either perceived or imagined vibrotactile stimuli on their left or right thumbs or big toes. The direct comparison to a corresponding perception condition revealed that SI was somatotopically recruited during imagery. While stimulus driven bottom-up processing induced activity throughout all SI subareas, i.e., BA1, BA3a, BA3b, and BA2 defined by probabilistic cytoarchitectonic maps, top-down recruitment during imagery was limited to the hierarchically highest subarea BA2.
Keywords: fMRI; imagery debate; mental codes; mental imagery; somatosensory; tactile; tactospatial sketchpad.