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Watching With Intent to Repeat Ignites Key Learning Area of Brain

Frey said, the amount of activity occurring in the intraparietal sulcus – when watching to learn accurately – predicts how well these actions are reproduced minutes later.

Frey’s group and others have previously implicated that this region is involved in organizing goal-directed manual actions. In effect, Frey said, the activity in intraparietal cortex may act as a thermometer that shows how well a person is translating what they are observing into a motor program for later performance.

“What appears vital is the intention of the observer rather than simply the visual stimulus that is being viewed,” Frey said. “If the goal is to be able to do what you are seeing, then it appears that activity through your motor system is up-regulated substantially.”

Using fMRI, researchers are able to monitor changes in activity throughout the entire brain while people think by taking advantage of differences in the magnetic properties of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin. These changes closely track underlying neural activity.

The findings “implicate the parieto-frontal mirror system in encoding the spatial components of observed actions and the primary motor cortex in the formation of novel motor memories through observation,” wrote Frey and research assistant Valerie E. Gerry in their conclusions.

“This study is the first in a series of several experiments that we plan to do,” Frey said. “It tells us something about how our own motor systems can be engaged and stimulated even in the absence of overt movements. This could prove important as a means of facilitating rehabilitation of individuals with movement impairments or paralyses.”

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