Activating the motor system through action observation: is this an efficient approach in adults and children?
Observing an action performed by another person to learn a new movement is a frequent experience in adult daily life, such as in sports. However, it is an especially common circumstance during the development of motor skills in childhood. Studies on healthy humans indicate that action observation induces a facilitation in the observer's motor system. This effect is supported by an action-perception matching mechanism available both in adults and in children. Because of the simplicity of action observation, it has been proposed to apply this method in clinical contexts. After a brief, non-exhaustive introduction of the essential features underlying action observation in healthy people, we review recent studies reporting beneficial effects of rehabilitative training based on a combination of action perception and execution. We focus on therapeutic interventions for patients with upper-limb motor disabilities such as adults after stroke or children with hemiplegia due to cerebral palsy. Further, we consider data from basic science demonstrating that the facilitation induced by visual perception of the action can be modulated by the combination of multimodal stimuli related to the movement (e.g. visual and acoustic action-related inputs). In line with this, we discuss possible new directions to improve basic knowledge and therapeutic applications of action observation.