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The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations

Key Points

  • The mirror mechanism is the mechanism that unifies perception and action, transforming sensory representations of the behaviour of others into motor representations of the same behaviour in the brain of the observer.

  • The parieto-frontal mirror circuit is the most studied of the circuits endowed with the mirror mechanism. Yet, there is still controversy about its role in social cognition and its contribution to understanding the actions and intentions of other individuals.

  • Recent findings show that the parieto-frontal mirror circuit in monkeys encodes the goal of the observed motor acts. In humans, there is evidence that the same circuit encodes the goal of the observed motor act and its individual movements.

  • The analysis of the properties of parieto-frontal mirror neurons shows that these neurons can encode the observed motor acts with a high degree of generality. None of the visual areas seems to have such a generality. This indicates that the parieto-frontal mirror circuit has a crucial role in understanding the actions of others.

  • The mirror mechanism is also involved in understanding the intentions of others. This capacity is mediated by the organization of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit in chains of neurons, in which each neuron encodes a specific motor act. This organization is present in both monkeys and humans, and recent studies have shown that it is impaired in children with autism.

  • Although the intentions of others might be understood in various ways, the mirror-based intention understanding is the only way that allows an individual to understand the actions of others 'from the inside' and provides the observer with a first-person grasp of another individual's motor goals and intentions.

Abstract

The parieto-frontal cortical circuit that is active during action observation is the circuit with mirror properties that has been most extensively studied. Yet, there remains controversy on its role in social cognition and its contribution to understanding the actions and intentions of other individuals. Recent studies in monkeys and humans have shed light on what the parieto-frontal cortical circuit encodes and its possible functional relevance for cognition. We conclude that, although there are several mechanisms through which one can understand the behaviour of other individuals, the parieto-frontal mechanism is the only one that allows an individual to understand the action of others 'from the inside' and gives the observer a first-person grasp of the motor goals and intentions of other individuals.

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Figure 1: The parieto-frontal mirror network.
Figure 2: Goal coding in the monkey premotor cortex.
Figure 3: Mirror neuron responses in the monkey during observation of actions executed in the peripersonal and extrapersonal space.

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Acknowledgements

The authors' work described in this Review was supported by a grant (FIL) of the University of Parma and by grants from Fondazione Monte Parma to G.R. and from Fondazione San Paolo to G.R. and C.S. C.S. was also supported by the Italian Ministero dell'Università e della Ricerca, Prin 2007.

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Glossary

Mirror mechanism

The mechanism that unifies perception and action, transforming sensory representations of the behaviour of others into motor representations of the same behaviour in the observer's brain.

Motor act

A movement with a specific motor goal (for example, reaching, grasping and manipulating). The successful achievement of its goal represents the reinforcement of the motor act.

Mirror-based action understanding

The comprehension of an observed action based on the activation of a motor programme in the observer's brain. The observed action is understood 'from the inside' as a motor possibility, rather than 'from the outside' as a mere visual description.

Superior temporal sulcus

(STS). This sulcus separates the superior temporal gyrus from the middle temporal gyrus. Some of the areas in the STS encode biological motion. Although connected with the parietal areas of the parieto-frontal mirror network, STS areas cannot be considered mirror areas because of their lack of motor properties.

Movement

A displacement of joints or body parts without a specific goal. It can be generated spontaneously or produced artificially by electrical or magnetic stimulation of motor areas.

TMS adaptation paradigm

A paradigm by which specific neural populations within the stimulated cortical region can be targeted. One population is 'adapted' and will therefore be less active. Because transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)targets less active neural populations, the adapted population will be facilitated more strongly by TMS

Inferential reasoning

The capacity to attribute to an agent mental states that might account for the observed motor action in terms of the reasons (for example, needs, desires and beliefs) underlying it.

Motor action

Several motor acts organized in a chain, leading to the achievement of a specific motor intention (for example, grasping a cup of coffee for drinking). The fulfilment of its motor intention represents the reinforcement of the motor action.

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Rizzolatti, G., Sinigaglia, C. The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Rev Neurosci 11, 264–274 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2805

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