Neural basis of action understanding: Evidence from sign language aphasia

Corianne Rogalsky, Kristin Raphel, Vivian Tomkovicz, Lucinda O'Grady, Hanna Damasio, Ursula Bellugi, Gregory Hickok

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Background: The neural basis of action understanding is a hotly debated issue. The mirror neuron account holds that motor simulation in fronto-parietal circuits is critical to action understanding including speech comprehension, while others emphasise the ventral stream in the temporal lobe. Evidence from speech strongly supports the ventral stream account, but on the other hand, evidence from manual gesture comprehension (e.g., in limb apraxia) has led to contradictory findings.Aims: Here we present a lesion analysis of sign language comprehension. Sign language is an excellent model for studying mirror system function in that it bridges the gap between the visual-manual system in which mirror neurons are best characterised and language systems which have represented a theoretical target of mirror neuron research.Methods & Procedures: Twenty-one life-long deaf signers with focal cortical lesions performed two tasks: one involving the comprehension of individual signs and the other involving comprehension of signed sentences (commands). Participants' lesions, as indicated on MRI or CT scans, were mapped onto a template brain to explore the relationship between lesion location and sign comprehension measures.Outcomes & Results: Single sign comprehension was not significantly affected by left hemisphere damage. Sentence sign comprehension impairments were associated with left temporal-parietal damage. We found that damage to mirror system related regions in the left frontal lobe were not associated with deficits on either of these comprehension tasks.Conclusions: We conclude that the mirror system is not critically involved in action understanding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1147-1158
Number of pages12
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Action understanding
  • Gesture
  • Sign aphasia
  • Sign language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • LPN and LVN


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