Anatomical and spatial matching in imitation: Evidence from left and right brain-damaged patients

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Imitation is a sensorimotor process whereby the visual information present in the model's movement has to be coupled with the activation of the motor system in the observer. This also implies that greater the similarity between the seen and the produced movement, the easier it will be to execute the movement, a process also known as ideomotor compatibility. Two components can influence the degree of similarity between two movements: the anatomical and the spatial component. The anatomical component is present when the model and imitator move the same body part (e.g., the right hand) while the spatial component is present when the movement of the model and that of the imitator occur at the same spatial position. Imitation can be achieved by relying on both components, but typically the model's and imitator's movements are matched either anatomically or spatially. The aim of this study was to ascertain the contribution of the left and right hemisphere to the imitation accomplished either with anatomical or spatial matching (or with both). Patients with unilateral left and right brain damage performed an ideomotor task and a gesture imitation task. Lesions in the left and right hemispheres gave rise to different performance deficits. Patients with lesions in the left hemisphere showed impaired imitation when anatomical matching was required, and patients with lesions in the right hemisphere showed impaired imitation when spatial matching was required. Lesion analysis further revealed a differential involvement of left and right hemispheric regions, such as the parietal opercula, in supporting imitation in the ideomotor task. Similarly, gesture imitation seemed to rely on different regions in the left and right hemisphere, such as parietal regions in the left hemisphere and premotor, somatosensory and subcortical regions in the right hemisphere.

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