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Prediction of human actions: Expertise and task-related effects on neural activation of the action observation network

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Abstract

The action observation network (AON) is supposed to play a crucial role when athletes anticipate the effect of others' actions in sports such as tennis. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to explore whether motor expertise leads to a differential activation pattern within the AON during effect anticipation and whether spatial and motor anticipation tasks are associated with a differential activation pattern within the AON depending on participant expertise level. Expert (N = 16) and novice (N = 16) tennis players observed video clips depicting forehand strokes with the instruction to either indicate the predicted direction of ball flight (spatial anticipation) or to decide on an appropriate response to the observed action (motor anticipation). The experts performed better than novices on both tennis anticipation tasks, with the experts showing stronger neural activation in areas of the AON, namely, the superior parietal lobe, the intraparietal sulcus, the inferior frontal gyrus, and the cerebellum. When novices were contrasted with experts, motor anticipation resulted in stronger activation of the ventral premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the superior parietal lobe than spatial anticipation task did. In experts, the comparison of motor and spatial anticipation revealed no increased activation. We suggest that the stronger activation of areas in the AON during the anticipation of action effects in experts reflects their use of the more fine-tuned motor representations they have acquired and improved during years of training. Furthermore, results suggest that the neural processing of different anticipation tasks depends on the expertise level. Hum Brain Mapp 35:4016–4034, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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