Crossmodal Classification of Mu Rhythm Activity during Action Observation and Execution Suggests Specificity to Somatosensory Features of Actions.
Coll M-P., Press C., Hobson H., Catmur C., Bird G.
The alpha mu rhythm (8-13 Hz) has been considered to reflect mirror neuron activity because it is attenuated by both action observation and action execution. The putative link between mirror neuron system activity and the mu rhythm has been used to study the involvement of the mirror system in a wide range of socio-cognitive processes and clinical disorders. However, previous research has failed to convincingly demonstrate the specificity of the mu rhythm, meaning that it is unclear whether the mu rhythm reflects mirror neuron activity. It also remains unclear whether mu rhythm suppression during action observation reflects the processing of motor or tactile information. In an attempt to assess the validity of the mu rhythm as a measure of mirror neuron activity, we used crossmodal pattern classification to assess the specificity of EEG mu rhythm response to action varying in terms of action type (whole-hand or precision grip), concurrent tactile stimulation (stimulation or no stimulation), or object use (transitive or intransitive actions) in 20 human participants. The main results reveal that above-chance crossmodal classification of mu rhythm activity was obtained in the central channels for tactile stimulation and action transitivity but not for action type. Furthermore, traditional univariate analyses applied to the same data were insensitive to differences between conditions. By calling into question the relationship between mirror system activity and the mu rhythm, these results have important implications for the use and interpretation of mu rhythm activity.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTThe central alpha mu rhythm oscillation is a widely used measure of the human mirror neuron system that has been used to make important claims concerning cognitive functioning in health and in disease. Here, we used a novel multivariate analytical approach to show that crossmodal EEG mu rhythm responses primarily index the somatosensory features of actions, suggesting that the mu rhythm is not a valid measure of mirror neuron activity. Results may lead to the revision of the conclusions of many previous studies using this measure, and to the transition toward a theory of mu rhythm function that is more consistent with current models of sensory processing in the self and in others.