Open Access Research

Brain network involved in visual processing of movement stimuli used in upper limb robotic training: an fMRI study

Federico Nocchi12*, Simone Gazzellini34, Carmela Grisolia34, Maurizio Petrarca34, Vittorio Cannatà1, Paolo Cappa45, Tommaso D’Alessio2 and Enrico Castelli34

Author Affiliations

1 Clinical Technology Innovations Research Area, Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, IRCCS, Piazza S. Onofrio 4, Rome, Italy

2 Department of Applied Electronics, University Roma Tre, Via della Vasca Navale 84, Rome, Italy

3 Department of Neuroscience and Neurorehabilitation, Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, IRCCS, Via Torre di Palidoro, Passoscuro, Rome, Italy

4 MARlab (Movement Analysis and Robotics Laboratory), Neurorehabilitation Division of Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, IRCCS, Via Torre di Palidoro, Passoscuro, Rome, Italy

5 Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Sapienza University of Rome, Via Eudossiana 4, Rome, Italy

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Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation 2012, 9:49  doi:10.1186/1743-0003-9-49

Published: 24 July 2012



The potential of robot-mediated therapy and virtual reality in neurorehabilitation is becoming of increasing importance. However, there is limited information, using neuroimaging, on the neural networks involved in training with these technologies. This study was intended to detect the brain network involved in the visual processing of movement during robotic training. The main aim was to investigate the existence of a common cerebral network able to assimilate biological (human upper limb) and non-biological (abstract object) movements, hence testing the suitability of the visual non-biological feedback provided by the InMotion2 Robot.


A visual functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) task was administered to 22 healthy subjects. The task required observation and retrieval of motor gestures and of the visual feedback used in robotic training. Functional activations of both biological and non-biological movements were examined to identify areas activated in both conditions, along with differential activity in upper limb vs. abstract object trials. Control of response was also tested by administering trials with congruent and incongruent reaching movements.


The observation of upper limb and abstract object movements elicited similar patterns of activations according to a caudo-rostral pathway for the visual processing of movements (including specific areas of the occipital, temporal, parietal, and frontal lobes). Similarly, overlapping activations were found for the subsequent retrieval of the observed movement. Furthermore, activations of frontal cortical areas were associated with congruent trials more than with the incongruent ones.


This study identified the neural pathway associated with visual processing of movement stimuli used in upper limb robot-mediated training and investigated the brain’s ability to assimilate abstract object movements with human motor gestures. In both conditions, activations were elicited in cerebral areas involved in visual perception, sensory integration, recognition of movement, re-mapping on the somatosensory and motor cortex, storage in memory, and response control. Results from the congruent vs. incongruent trials revealed greater activity for the former condition than the latter in a network including cingulate cortex, right inferior and middle frontal gyrus that are involved in the go-signal and in decision control. Results on healthy subjects would suggest the appropriateness of an abstract visual feedback provided during motor training. The task contributes to highlight the potential of fMRI in improving the understanding of visual motor processes and may also be useful in detecting brain reorganisation during training.

Neurorehabilitation; Robot-mediated therapy; fMRI; Motor processing; Upper limb rehabilitation