The Extended Mirror Neuron Network: Anatomy, Origin, and Functions

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Mirror neurons (MNs) are a fascinating class of cells originally discovered in the ventral premotor cortex (PMv) and, subsequently, in the inferior parietal lobule (IPL) of the macaque, which become active during both the execution and observation of actions. In this review, I will first highlight the mounting evidence indicating that mirroring others’ actions engages a broad system of reciprocally connected cortical areas, which extends well beyond the classical IPL-PMv circuit and might even include subcortical regions such as the basal ganglia. Then, I will present the most recent findings supporting the idea that the observation of one’s own actions, which might play a role in the ontogenetic origin and tuning of MNs, retains a particular relevance within the adult MN system. Finally, I will propose that both cortical and subcortical mechanisms do exist to decouple MN activity from the motor output, in order to render it exploitable for high-order perceptual, cognitive, and even social functions. The findings reviewed here provide an original framework for envisaging the main challenges and experimental directions of future neurophysiological and neuroanatomical studies of the monkey MN system.

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