Previous studies have shown overlapping neural activations for observation and execution or imitation of emotional facial expressions. These shared representations have been assumed to provide indirect evidence for a human mirror neuron system, which is suggested to be a prerequisite of action comprehension. We aimed at clarifying whether shared representations in and beyond human mirror areas are specifically activated by affective facial expressions or whether they are activated by facial expressions independent of the emotional meaning. During neuroimaging, participants observed and executed happy and non-emotional facial expressions. Shared representations were revealed for happy facial expressions in the pars opercularis, the precentral gyrus, in the superior temporal gyrus/medial temporal gyrus (MTG), in the pre-supplementary motor area and in the right amygdala. All areas showed less pronounced activation in the non-emotional condition. When directly compared, significant stronger neural responses emerged for happy facial expressions in the pre-supplementary motor area and in the MTG than for non-emotional stimuli. We assume that activation of shared representations depends on the affect and (social) relevance of the facial expression. The pre-supplementary motor area is a core-shared representation-structure supporting observation and execution of affective contagious facial expressions and might have a modulatory role during the preparation of executing happy facial expressions.
Affect-specific activation of shared networks for perception and execution of facial expressions. Kircher T, Pohl A, Krach S, Thimm M, Schulte-Rüther M, Anders S, Mathiak K. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013 Apr;8(4):370-7. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss008. Epub 2012 Jan 24.