Neural representations of novel motor skills can be acquired through visual observation. We used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to test the idea that this “motor learning by observing” is based on engagement of neural processes for learning in the primary motor cortex (M1). Human subjects who observed another person learning to reach in a novel force environment imposed by a robot arm performed better when later tested in the same environment than subjects who observed movements in a different environment. rTMS applied to M1 after observation reduced the beneficial effect of observing congruent forces, and eliminated the detrimental effect of observing incongruent forces. Stimulation of a control site in the frontal cortex had no effect on reaching. Our findings represent the first direct evidence that neural representations of motor skills in M1, a cortical region whose role has been firmly established for active motor learning, also underlie motor learning by observing.

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