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Keywords:

  • action observation;
  • language;
  • premotor cortex;
  • transcranial magnetic stimulation

Abstract

Previous studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) explored the relationships between linguistic processing and motor resonance, i.e. the activation of the motor system while perceiving others performing an action. These studies have mainly investigated a specific linguistic domain, i.e. semantics, whereas phonology has been largely neglected. Here we used single-pulse TMS to compare the effects of semantic and phonological processing with motor resonance effects. We applied TMS to the primary motor hand area while subjects observed object-oriented actions and performed semantic and phonological tasks related to the observed action. Motor evoked potentials were recorded in two hand muscles, one of them more involved in the execution of the observed actions than the other one, at three different timepoints (0, 200 and 400 ms after stimulus onset). The results demonstrated increased corticospinal excitability that was muscle-specific (i.e. restricted to the hand muscle involved in the observed action), hemisphere-specific (left), and time-specific (400 ms after stimulus onset). The results suggest an additive effect of independent semantic and phonological processing on motor resonance. The novel phonological effect reported here expands the links between language and the motor system and is consistent with a theory of shared control for hand and mouth. Furthermore, the timing of the semantic effect suggests that motor activation during semantic processing is not an ‘epiphenomenon’ but rather is essential to the construction of meaning.