How do we understand the actions and intentions of others? Hereby we intend to address this issue by using a multidisciplinary approach. Our project is subdivided into four parts. In the first part we investigate the neural organization of monkey area F5, an area deeply involved in motor act understanding. By using a new set of electrodes we will describe the columnar organization of the area F5, establish the temporal relationships between the activity of F5 mirror and motor neurons, and correlate the activity of mirror neurons coding the observed motor acts in peripersonal and extrapersonal space with the activity of motor neurons in the same cortical column. In the second part we will assess the neural mechanism underlying the understanding of the intention of complex actions , i.e. actions formed by a sequence of two (or more) individual actions. The focus will be on the neurons located in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in the organization of high-order motor behavior. The rational of the experiment is that, while the organization of single actions and the understanding of intention behind them is function of parietal neurons, that of complex actions relies on the activity of the prefrontal lobe. In the third and fourth parts of the project we will delimit the cortical areas involved in understanding the goal (the what) and the intention (the why) of the observed actions in individuals with typical development (TD) and in children with autism and will establish the time relation between these two processes. Our hypothesis is that the chained organization of intentional motor acts is impaired in children with autism and this impairment prevents them from organizing normally their actions and from understanding others intentions.
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