Mirror neurons responding to observation of actions made with tools in monkey ventral premotor cortex.
In the present study, we describe a new type of visuomotor neurons, named tool-responding mirror neurons, which are found in the lateral sector of monkey ventral premotor area F5. Tool-responding mirror neurons discharge when the monkey observes actions performed by an experimenter with a tool (a stick or a pair of pliers). This response is stronger than that obtained when the monkey observes a similar action made with a biological effector (the hand or the mouth). These neurons respond also when the monkey executes actions with both the hand and the mouth. The visual and the motor responses of each neuron are congruent in that they share the same general goal, that is, taking possession of an object and modifying its state. It is hypothesized that after a relatively long visual exposure to tool actions, a visual association between the hand and the tool is created, so that the tool becomes as a kind of prolongation of the hand. We propose that tool-responding mirror neurons enable the observing monkey to extend action-understanding capacity to actions that do not strictly correspond to its motor representations. Our findings support the notion that the motor cortex plays a crucial role in understanding action goals.