We have used implicit motor imagery to investigate the neural correlates of motor planning independently from actual movements. Subjects were presented with drawings of left or right hands and asked to judge the hand laterality, regardless of the stimulus rotation from its upright orientation. We paired this task with a visual imagery control task, in which subjects were presented with typographical characters and asked to report whether they saw a canonical letter or its mirror image, regardless of its rotation. We measured neurovascular activity with fast event-related fMRI, distinguishing responses parametrically related to motor imagery from responses evoked by visual imagery and other task-related phenomena. By quantifying behavioral and neurovascular correlates of imagery on a trial-by-trial basis, we could discriminate between stimulus-related, mental rotation-related, and response-related neural activity. We found that specific portions of the posterior parietal and precentral cortex increased their activity as a function of mental rotation only during the motor imagery task. Within these regions, the parietal cortex was visually responsive, whereas the dorsal precentral cortex was not. Response- but not rotation-related activity was found around the left central sulcus (putative primary motor cortex) during both imagery tasks. Our study provides novel evidence on the topography and content of movement representations in the human brain. During intended action, the posterior parietal cortex combines somatosensory and visuomotor information, whereas the dorsal premotor cortex generates the actual motor plan, and the primary motor cortex deals with movement execution. We discuss the relevance of these results in the context of current models of action planning.

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