Observing action sequences elicits sequence-specific neural representations in frontoparietal brain regions

Dace Apšvalka, Emily S. Cross*, Richard Ramsey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
60 Downloads (Pure)


Learning new skills by watching others is important for social and motor development throughout the lifespan. Prior research has suggested that observational learning shares common substrates with physical practice at both cognitive and brain levels. In addition, neuroimaging studies have used multivariate analysis techniques to understand neural representations in a variety of domains, including vision, audition, memory, and action, but few studies have investigated neural plasticity in representational space. Therefore, although movement sequences can be learned by observing other people’s actions, a largely unanswered question in neuroscience is how experience shapes the representational space of neural systems. Here, across a sample of male and female participants, we combined pretrain-ing and posttraining fMRI sessions with 6 d of observational practice to determine whether the observation of action sequences elicits sequence-specific representations in human frontoparietal brain regions and the extent to which these representations become more distinct with observational practice. Our results showed that observed action sequences are modeled by distinct patterns of activity in frontoparietal cortex and that such representations largely generalize to very similar, but untrained, sequences. These findings advance our understanding of what is modeled during observational learning (sequence-specific information), as well as how it is modeled (reorganization of frontoparietal cortex is similar to that previously shown following physical practice). Therefore, on a more fine-grained neural level than demonstrated previously, our findings reveal how the representational structure of frontoparietal cortex maps visual information onto motor circuits in order to enhance motor performance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10114-10128
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number47
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2018. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • action observation
  • fMRI
  • MVPA
  • sequence learning


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