MeetmeTonight was held at the end of September in Milan, an initiative that aims to bring the general public closer to research and innovation, thanks to various meetings with experts in the sector.

“Learning, care and sport: where is the research? “This is the theme at the center of the speech by Professor Roberto Gatti, Head of the Physiotherapy Service at Humanitas, as part of a broader discussion on mirror neurons.

“In 1992, a group of researchers led by Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma described mirror neurons for the first time, which we now know to be located in the frontal-parietal area of the brain. These neurons are activated not only when performing a movement, but also when the movement is seen as being conducted by others. Mirror neurons are code not only for movement in terms of kinematic execution, but also for the meaning of the movement itself,” Professor Gatti explains.


The development of Action Observation Training

“The discovery that mirror neurons are involved in motor learning led to the development of a rehabilitative approach, called Action Observation Training, first proposed in 2007 by Professor Giovanni Buccino.

This approach, taking advantage of the characteristics of mirror neurons, proposes that the patient carefully observe a video that shows the execution of a movement, specifying – before the video – that he must then imitate and replicate that movement. Several studies have confirmed (mainly through observation in functional magnetic resonance) that this triggers an activation of mirror neurons that would seem to favor the brain’s predisposition to perform the required gesture.

This approach has been designed primarily for the rehabilitation of stroke patients, although an increasing number of jobs are targeting patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease,” emphasized Professor Gatti.


Characteristics of the gesture

“From the data we know that the gesture proposed in the video must be transitive, aimed at a task (such as taking a small object and moving it). If the proposed gesture belongs to the motor experience of the patient, even better.

Another aspect on which much thought has been given is whether it would be better to have a video in the first person, in which the patient sees, for example, only the arm that makes the movement, filmed as if that arm were his own, or in the third person, in which a subject is seen from the front to make the given movement”, the specialist points out.


Motor imagery and Action Observation Training

“The first-person video recalls the dimension of imagination, it is as if the patient imagined that he was the one to make that movement. This aspect led to the involvement of the “motor imagery”, a mental process recognized as the subject imagines making a gesture without really doing it, and therefore we wondered if the Action Observation Training could not be superimposed on the motor imagery. In fact, the two processes are not the same thing, but they share part of the same substrate – the mirror neuron system,” explains Professor Gatti.


Research in Italy

“Action Observation Training is the focus of many studies, so far more than 30 studies on its effectiveness have been published in international scientific journals and almost all of them indicate the positive effects of this rehabilitation approach. Our group is one of the few that deals with it in Italy and we are exploring its applications in different fields and with different ways of administration from what has been proposed so far”, concluded Professor Gatti.