Formation of a motor memory by action observation

Katja Stefan, Leonardo G. Cohen, Julie Duque, Riccardo Mazzocchio, Pablo Celnik, Lumy Sawaki, Leslie Ungerleider, Joseph Classen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

276 Scopus citations


Mirror neurons discharge with both action observation and action execution. It has been proposed that the mirror neuron system is instrumental in motor learning. The human primary motor cortex (M1) displays mirror activity in response to movement observation, is capable of forming motor memories, and is involved in motor learning. However, it is not known whether movement observation can lead directly to the formation of motor memories in the Ml, which is considered a likely physiological step in motor learning. Here, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to show that observation of another individual performing simple repetitive thumb movements gives rise to a kinematically specific memory trace of the observed motions in M1. An extended period of observation of thumb move-ments that were oriented oppositely to the previously determined habitual directional bias increased the probability of TMS-evoked thumb movements to fall within the observed direction. Furthermore, the acceleration of TMS-evoked thumb movements along the principal movement axis and the balance of excitability of muscle representations active in the observed movements were altered in favor of the observed movement direction. These findings support a role for the mirror neuron system in memory formation and possibly human motor learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9339-9346
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number41
StatePublished - Oct 12 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Action observation
  • Human
  • Memory
  • Mirror neuron system
  • Motor cortex
  • Plasticity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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