The role of cortical sensorimotor oscillations in action anticipation

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The human mirror neuron system is believed to play an important role in facilitating the ability of athletes to anticipate the actions of an opponent. This system is often assessed with EEG by measuring event-related changes in mu (8–13 Hz) sensorimotor oscillations. However, traditional channel-based analyses of this measure are flawed in that due to volume conduction effects mu and non-mu alpha activity can become mixed. This flaw means it is unclear the extent to which mu activity indexes the mirror system, as opposed to other processes such as attentional demand. As a solution to this problem, we use independent component analysis to separate out the underlying brain processes during a tennis-related action observation and anticipation task. We investigated expertise-related differences in independent component activity. Experienced tennis players (N=18) were significantly more accurate than unexperienced novices (N=21) on the anticipation task. EEG results found significant group differences in both the mu and beta (15–25 Hz) frequency bands in sensorimotor components, with earlier and greater desynchronisation in the experienced tennis players. In particular, only experienced players showed desynchronisation in the high mu (11–13 Hz) band. No group differences were found in posterior alpha components. These results show for the first time that expertise differences during action observation and anticipation are unique to sensorimotor sources, and that no expertise-related differences exist in attention modulated, posterior alpha sources. As such, this paper provides a much cleaner measure of the human mirror system during action observation, and its modulation by motor expertise, than has been possible in previous work.

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