Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Neuropsychologia. 2015 Mar 2;70:255-262. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.02.033. [Epub ahead of print]

The plasticity of the mirror system: How reward learning modulates cortical motor simulation of others

Cortical motor simulation supports the understanding of others' actions and intentions. This mechanism is thought to rely on the mirror neuron system (MNS), a brain network that is active both during action execution and observation. Indirect evidence suggests that (alpha/beta) mu suppression, an electroencephalographic (EEG) index of MNS activity, is modulated by reward. In this study we aimed to test the plasticity of the MNS by directly investigating the link between (alpha/beta) mu suppression and reward. 40 individuals from a general population sample took part in an evaluative conditioning experiment, where different neutral faces were associated with high or low reward values. In the test phase, EEG was recorded while participants viewed videoclips of happy expressions made by the conditioned faces. Alpha/beta mu suppression (identified using event-related desynchronisation of specific independent components) in response to rewarding faces was found to be greater than for non-rewarding faces. This result provides a mechanistic insight into the plasticity of the MNS and, more generally, into the role of reward in modulating physiological responses linked to empathy.

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