Self-selected conscious strategies do not modulate motor cortical output during action observation
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The human motor system is active not only when actions are performed but also when they are observed. Experimenters often manipulate aspects of the action or context to examine factors that influence this "mirror" response. However, little is known about the role of the observer's own top-down intentions and motivation. In this exploratory study, we investigated whether observers are able to exert conscious control over their mirror response, when they are explicitly instructed to either increase or decrease mirroring. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to elicit motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) in a thumb abductor muscle as participants (n = 13) watched a video of a hand squeezing a rubber ball. The size of these MEPs, relative to the size of MEPs elicited during fixation cross observation, was taken as an index of mirroring. In an initial block of trials, participants were instructed to merely observe the actions presented. After the first block, the concept of mirroring was explained to the participants, and in the second and third blocks participants were instructed to either increase or decrease their mirror response. We did not instruct them about how to achieve this increase or decrease. Our results showed no difference in either facilitation or absolute motor excitability (i.e., nonnormalized MEP size) between the three blocks, indicating that individuals do not seem to be able to exert control over motor excitability during action observation, at least in the absence of a specific and maintained strategy.
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