Effects of action observation on corticospinal excitability: muscle specificity, direction and timing of the mirror response

Katherine R. Naish*, Carmel Houston-price, Andrew J. Bremner, Nicholas P. Holmes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

97 Citations (Scopus)


Many human behaviours and pathologies have been attributed to the putative mirror neuron system, a neural system that is active during both the observation and execution of actions. While there are now a very large number of papers on the mirror neuron system, variations in the methods and analyses employed by researchers mean that the basic characteristics of the mirror response are not clear. This review focuses on three important aspects of the mirror response, as measured by modulations in corticospinal excitability: (1) muscle specificity; (2) direction; and (3) timing of modulation. We focus mainly on electromyographic (EMG) data gathered following single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), because this method provides precise information regarding these three aspects of the response. Data from paired-pulse TMS paradigms and peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS) are also considered when we discuss the possible mechanisms underlying the mirror response. In this systematic review of the literature, we examine the findings of 85 TMS and PNS studies of the human mirror response, and consider the limitations and advantages of the different methodological approaches these have adopted in relation to discrepancies between their findings. We conclude by proposing a testable model of how action observation modulates corticospinal excitability in humans. Specifically, we propose that action observation elicits an early, non-specific facilitation of corticospinal excitability (at around 90 ms from action onset), followed by a later modulation of activity specific to the muscles involved in the observed action (from around 200 ms). Testing this model will greatly advance our understanding of the mirror mechanism and provide a more stable grounding on which to base inferences about its role in human behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-348
Number of pages18
Early online date2 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


  • Mirror neuron system
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation
  • Motor evoked potential
  • Action observation
  • Action execution


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