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Anticipating the course of an action: evidence from corticospinal excitability

Mattia Marangon1*, Giulia Bucchioni2, Stefano Massacesi1 and Umberto Castiello1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Via Venezia, Padova 8-35131, Italy

2 Laboratoire de Neuroscience Functionelles et Pathologies, UFR de Médicine, Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Amiens, France

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BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:91  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-91

Published: 28 August 2013



Anticipatory planning, the ability to anticipate future perceptual-motor demands of a goal-oriented action sequence, is essential for flexible, purposeful behavior. Once an action goal has been defined, movement details necessary to achieve that goal can be selected. Here, we investigate if anticipatory planning takes place even when multi-step actions are being carried out. How, we may ask, are the cerebral circuits involved in movement selection influenced by anticipated object-center task demands? Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to investigate how changes in corticospinal excitability (CSE) are dependent on anticipated task variables of intended future actions. Specifically, single- and paired-pulse TMS was used to evaluate corticospinal excitability during the action selection phase preparatory to grasp execution.


We found that during the premovement phase, there is an object- and muscle-specific modulation in the intrinsic hand muscle that will be used during a forthcoming grasping action. Depending on whether the participants were instructed to perform a single- or double-step movement sequence, modulation of the corticospinal output to the appropriate hand muscles was dependent on what object was to be grasped and what type of movement was being prepared. No modulation in excitability was observed during one-step movements.


Anticipation of intended task demands plays an important role in controlling multi- step actions during which ongoing behavior may need to be adjusted. This finding supports the notion that the cortico-cortical mechanism involving movement planning is specific for an object’s properties as well as for the goal of the movement sequence.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation; Cortical excitability; Intracortical inhibition and facilitation; Motor evoked potentials; Action planning; Multi-step action