Abstract

Humans display a remarkable capacity to use tools instead of their biological effectors. Yet, little is known about the mechanisms that support these behaviors. Here, participants learned to grasp objects, appearing in a variety of orientations, with a novel, handheld mechanical tool. Following training, psychophysical functions relating grip preferences (i.e., pronated vs. supinated) to stimulus orientations indicate a reliance on distinct, effector-specific internal representations when planning grasping actions on the basis of the tool versus the hands. Accompanying fMRI data show that grip planning in both hand and tool conditions was associated with similar increases in activity within the same regions of the anterior intraparietal and caudal ventral premotor cortices, a putative homologue of the macaque anterior intraparietal–ventral premotor (area F5) “grasp circuit.” These findings suggest that tool use is supported by effector-specific representations of grasping with the tool that are functionally independent of previously existing representations of the hand and yet occur within the same parieto-frontal regions involved in manual prehension. These levels of representation are critical for accurate planning and execution of actions in a manner that is sensitive to the respective properties of these effectors. These effector-specific representations likely coexist with effector-independent representations. The latter were recently reported in macaque F5 [Umiltà, M. A., Escola, L., Intskirveli, I., Grammont, F., Rochat, M., Caruana, F., et al. When pliers become fingers in the monkey motor system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 105, 2209–2213, 2008] and appear to be established by tool use training through modification of existing representations of grasping with the hand. These more abstract levels of representation may facilitate the transfer of skills between hand and tool.

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