Investigating common coding of observed and executed actions in the monkey brain using cross-modal multi-variate fMRI classification

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Abstract

Mirror neurons are generally described as a neural substrate hosting shared representations of actions, by simulating or ‘mirroring’ the actions of others onto the observer's own motor system. Since single neuron recordings are rarely feasible in humans, it has been argued that cross-modal multi-variate pattern analysis (MVPA) of non-invasive fMRI data is a suitable technique to investigate common coding of observed and executed actions, allowing researchers to infer the presence of mirror neurons in the human brain. In an effort to close the gap between monkey electrophysiology and human fMRI data with respect to the mirror neuron system, here we tested this proposal for the first time in the monkey. Rhesus monkeys either performed reach-and-grasp or reach-and-touch motor acts with their right hand in the dark or observed videos of human actors performing similar motor acts. Unimodal decoding showed that both executed or observed motor acts could be decoded from numerous brain regions. Specific portions of rostral parietal, premotor and motor cortices, previously shown to house mirror neurons, in addition to somatosensory regions, yielded significant asymmetric action-specific cross-modal decoding. These results validate the use of cross-modal multi-variate fMRI analyses to probe the representations of own and others' actions in the primate brain and support the proposed mapping of others' actions onto the observer's own motor cortices.

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