Training the Motor Cortex by Observing the Actions of Others During Immobilization

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Limb immobilization and nonuse are well-known causes of corticomotor depression. While physical training can drive the recovery from nonuse-dependent corticomotor effects, it remains unclear if it is possible to gain access to motor cortex in alternative ways, such as through motor imagery (MI) or action observation (AO). Transcranial magnetic stimulation was used to study the excitability of the hand left motor cortex in normal subjects immediately before and after 10 h of right arm immobilization. During immobilization, subjects were requested either to imagine to act with their constrained limb or to observe hand actions performed by other individuals. A third group of control subjects watched a nature documentary presented on a computer screen. Hand corticomotor maps and recruitment curves reliably showed that AO, but not MI, prevented the corticomotor depression induced by immobilization. Our results demonstrate the existence of a visuomotor mechanism in humans that links AO and execution which is able to effect cortical plasticity in a beneficial way. This facilitation was not related to the action simulation, because it was not induced by explicit MI.

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