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Keywords:

  • action observation;
  • decoding;
  • MI neurons;
  • primates;
  • timing

Abstract

Neurons in higher cortical areas appear to become active during action observation, either by mirroring observed actions (termed mirror neurons) or by eliciting mental rehearsal of observed motor acts. We report the existence of neurons in the primary motor cortex (M1), an area that is generally considered to initiate and guide movement performance, responding to viewed actions. Multielectrode recordings in monkeys performing or observing a well-learned step-tracking task showed that approximately half of the M1 neurons that were active when monkeys performed the task were also active when they observed the action being performed by a human. These ‘view’ neurons were spatially intermingled with ‘do’ neurons, which are active only during movement performance. Simultaneously recorded ‘view’ neurons comprised two groups: approximately 38% retained the same preferred direction (PD) and timing during performance and viewing, and the remainder (62%) changed their PDs and time lag during viewing as compared with performance. Nevertheless, population activity during viewing was sufficient to predict the direction and trajectory of viewed movements as action unfolded, although less accurately than during performance. ‘View’ neurons became less active and contained poorer representations of action when only subcomponents of the task were being viewed. M1 ‘view’ neurons thus appear to reflect aspects of a learned movement when observed in others, and form part of a broadly engaged set of cortical areas routinely responding to learned behaviors. These findings suggest that viewing a learned action elicits replay of aspects of M1 activity needed to perform the observed action, and could additionally reflect processing related to understanding, learning or mentally rehearsing action.