social linkedin box blue 32
social facebook box blue 32
social twitter box blue 32
social facebook box blue 32


Home RBCS ■ Physiology of Action and Perception

Physiology of Action and Perception

The lab explores the organizational principles subserving the control of natural goal oriented action. Perception and planning of action are studied using psychophysics, EEG, TMS and fMRI. Because neuroanatomy shows specific routes for sensory and motor signals, neurophysiological and behavioural studies usually dissociate perception and action processes. In contrast with such a dual description that shapes our understanding of central nervous system, the main message addressed in our scientific production is that action and perception systems strongly overlap.

Research topics:

Space and Body representation Computational motor control Cortical plasticity of motor system

This research topic concerns plastic and motor features underlying body and space representations


This research topic concerns computational models of human motor control.


This project aims to study plasticity of motor system after immobilization and the effects of action observation and motor imagery in preventing cortical modifications induced by inactivity.

Effect of visual gravity on arm motion planning Multisensory Action Observation Therapy

Investigation of how the central nervous system integrates multisensory gravity-related information in motion planning.


These projects aims to develop clinical protocols based on a multisensory Action Observation Therapy. This approach aims to more intensively activate the motor cortex by integrating auditory and tactile stimuli to the observed action.


We received a grant funded by La Fondation Motrice within the research programme "PACE for CP (Perception - Action - Cognition - Environment for Cerebral Palsy)". Our project aims to improve the recovery of motor disabilities combining the use of multimodal action-related inputs in patients with hemiplegic Cerebral Palsy.


  • Bisio A., Stucchi N., Jacono M., Fadiga L. and Pozzo T. (2010)
    Automatic versus Voluntary Motor Imitation: Effect of Visual Context and Stimulus Velocity
    PLoS ONE, vol. 5, (no. 10), pp. e13506, 1932-6203
  • Avanzino L, Bassolino M, Pozzo T, Bove M (2011)
    Use-dependent hemispheric balance.
    J of Neurosciences 31:3423-3428
  • Berret B, Chiovetto E, Nori F, Pozzo T (2011)
    The manifold reaching paradigm: how do we handle target redundancy?
    J of Neurophysiol, 106(4):2086-102.
  • Berret B, Chiovetto E, Nori F, Pozzo T (2011)
    Evidence for Composite Cost Functions in Arm Movement Planning: An Inverse Optimal Control Approach
    PLoS Comput Biol, 7(10): e1002183
  • Chiovetto E., *Patanè L. and *Pozzo T. (2012)
    Variant and invariant features characterizing natural and reverse whole-body pointing movements
    Experimental Brain Research, vol. 218, (no. 3), pp. 419-31, 1432-1106
  • *Sciutti A., *Demougeot L., *Berret B., *Toma S., *Sandini G., Papaxanthis C. and *Pozzo T. (2012)
    Visual gravity influences arm movement planning
    Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 107, (no. 12), pp. 3433-3445, 0022-3077
  • Bassolino M., Jacono M., Bove M., Fadiga L., Pozzo T. (2012)
    Sensorimotor deprivation induced by immobilization modifies the kinematic of a reaching-to-grasp
    Neuroscience, 215:127-34
alt Space and Body representation
People involved:

Michela Bassolino, Alessandra Finisguerra, Thierry Pozzo

In order to interact with the external world, our brain relies on multisensory representations of the body in space, related both to the position and dimension of the body parts (e.g. Longo and Haggard, 2010) and to the location of external objects in the space surrounding the body (the peripersonal space). Both space and body representations are dynamically shaped by actions (for a review Làdavas & Serino, 2008): interacting with far objects by means of a tool extends the boundaries of peripersonal space and induces an elongation of the perceived dimension of the arm. In contrast, possible effects induced by inactivity on these representations remain elusive. In this vein, arm immobilization and concurrent compensatory overuse of the other free limb seems to offer a unique opportunity to evaluate the role of action in shaping body and space representations. Adapted (e.g. Bassolino et al. 2010) or new behavioral tasks and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) procedures are employed. Further developments will concern the study of these representations under pathological conditions.

Specific projects investigate:

  • differences and analogies on body and space representations
  • the influence of posture and action on body metric proprieties
  • motor features of peripersonal space

An experimental setup used to evaluate the perceived dimension of the arm

Longo, M. R., & Haggard, P. (2010)
An implicit body representation underlying human position sense
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 107(26), 11727-11732E.

Làdavas, E., & Serino, A. (2008)
Action-dependent plasticity in peripersonal space representations
Cognitive Neuropsychology, 25:1099-1113, 2008

Bassolino M., Serino A., Ubaldi S. and Làdavas E. (2010)
Everyday use of the computer mouse extends peripersonal space representation
Neuropsychologia, vol. 48(3), pp. 803-811

alt Computational motor control
People involved:

Thierry Pozzo, Dan Li

An important issue in motor control is to understand what are the basic principles underlying the accomplishment of natural movements. According to optimal control theory, the problem can be stated in these terms: what cost function do we optimize to coordinate the many more degrees of freedom than necessary to fulfill a specific motor goal? This question has not received a final answer yet, since what is optimized partly depends on the requirements of the task. Many cost functions were proposed in the past, and most of them were found to be in agreement with experimental data. Therefore, the actual principles on which the brain relies to achieve a certain motor behavior and make some motor decision are still unclear. Existing results might suggest that movements are not the results of the minimization of single but rather of composite cost functions. In order to better clarify these points, we consider innovative experimental paradigms, for example arm reaching with target redundancy. Within this framework, we can make use of inverse optimal control techniques to automatically infer the (combination of) optimality criteria that best fit the experimental data (e.g. Berret et al. 2011a,b).
This line of research actually lies in the more general framework of decision-making. Indeed, daily life activities are driven by cognitive processes such as attention and decision-making, which enable humans to interact intelligently with their surrounding environment. Voluntary goal-directed action consists of a series of decisions regarding whether to act, what action to perform and when to perform it (see Haggard 2008). The problems of goal ("what target to reach to") and movement ("how to reach that target") selection represent two constituent pieces of "what motor decision" to make. We aim to develop computational models accounting for the human motor decisional system.

Specific investigations:

  • Investigate how humans control their movements
  • Development of computational models of motor control
  • Study of motor decision mechanisms

Analysis tools:

The cortical correlates of movement planning and decision-making are investigated through EEG, effector kinematics through motion capture devices, and muscular activity through multi-channel EMG .

The manifold reaching paradigm, used in a study to identify better the cost function underlying human movements

P. Haggard
Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will
Nat Rev Neurosci 9:934-946, 2008

*Berret B., *Chiovetto E., *Nori F. and *Pozzo T. (2011)
Evidence for composite cost functions in arm movement planning: an inverse optimal control approach
PLoS Computational Biology, vol. 7, (no. 10), pp. e1002183

*Berret B., *Chiovetto E., *Nori F. and *Pozzo T. (2011)
Manifold reaching paradigm: how do we handle target redundancy?
Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 106, (no. 4), pp. 2086-2102, 0022-3077

alt Cortical plasticity of motor system
People involved:

Michela Bassolino, Luciano Fadiga, Thierry Pozzo

Plasticity of motor system has been studied through two main approaches: the first is related to motor training and the subsequent increase of sensory inputs and motor outputs (see for a review Pascual-Leone et al., 2005), while the second concerns the deprivation of these signals after lesions (e.g. Kaas, 2000) or non-use. We conducted a series of experiments in which we evaluated cortical (Avanzino et al. 2011) and behavioral (Bassolino et al. 2012) effects of a short period of arm non-use in healthy subjects (see the figure below). Moreover, we verified the possibility to prevent cortical changes caused by inactivity through motor imagery and action observation. During immobilization participants were asked to imagine to act with their constrained limb or to observe hand actions performed by other individuals. Hand corticomotor maps obtained with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) reliably show that action observation, but not motor imagery, compensate the cortical effects typically induced by immobilization (Bassolino et al., 2013). Given these data, a further extent of the present research topic is related to motor rehabilitation, based on action observation, of patients with motor impairments.

The immobilization procedure. Subjects were instructed not to move the right hand for 10 hours. We wrapped participants' hand and forearm with a soft painless bandage (a, b). A cotton support was also employed to constrain arm movement and to hold the elbow joint in a comfortable position at 90 degree of flexion (c,d).

Pascual-Leone, A., Amedi, A., Fregni, F., & Merabet, L.B. (2005)
The plastic human brain cortex
Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28:377-401

Kaas, J.H. (2000)
The reorganization of somatosensory and motor cortex after peripheral nerve or spinal cord injury in primates
Progress in Brain Research, 128:173-179

Avanzino L., *Bassolino M., *Pozzo T. and Bove M. (2011)
Use-dependent hemispheric balance
Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 31, (no. 9), pp. 3423-3428, 1529-2401

Bassolino M., Jacono M., Bove M., Fadiga L., Pozzo T. (2012)
Sensorimotor deprivation induced by immobilization modifies the kinematic of a reaching-to-grasp
Neuroscience, 215:127-34

Bassolino, M., Campanella, M., Bove, M., Pozzo, T., & Fadiga, L.
Training the motor cortex by observing others' actions

alt Effect of visual gravity on arm motion planning
People involved:

Alessandra Sciutti, Giulio Sandini, Thierry Pozzo

In everyday life gravity is determinant, as its effect on the moving limbs must be integrated to obtain dexterous movements. However, little is known about how different modalities interact with the gravity-related mechanisms adopted in motion planning. The aim of this study was to investigate through a visuo-motor conflict the influence of visual context on the integration of gravity in movement planning. Our results indicate that visual context influences arm kinematics, even if this causes the adoption of non-optimal motor plans in terms of energy consumption. Most importantly, the influence of vision on arm movement planning is not fixed, but rather changes as a function of movement orientation with respect to gravity (Sciutti et al. JNP 2012). 

*Sciutti A., *Demougeot L., *Berret B., *Toma S., *Sandini G., Papaxanthis C. and *Pozzo T. (2012)
Visual gravity influences arm movement planning
Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 107, (no. 12), pp. 3433-3445, 0022-3077

Sciutti A., Demougeot L., Berret B. and Pozzo T. (2010)
The role of gravity in the combination of visuo-proprioceptive inputs for motion planning
Perception, Losanna, Svizzera, August 22-26, 0301-0066

Demougeot L., Mollet N., Sciutti A., Chellali R. and Pozzo T. (2009)
Virtual Reality-Based Scenarios for Visuo-motor Conflicts Studies: Preliminary Results
Second International Conferences on Advances in Computer-Human Interactions, ACHI 2009, vol. 0, pp. 306 - 309, Cancun, Mexico, February 1-7, 2009

alt Multisensory Action Observation Therapy
People involved:

Alberto Inuggi, Valentina Pippo, Thierry Pozzo, Michela Bassolino

The discovery of the mirror neurons and the possibility to activate the motor cortex through the observation of others' actions has open the possibility to integrate traditional motor rehabilitation strategies with a novel approach based on action observation. The latter approach has the advantages to be performed reducing the physical effort of the patients, thus reducing pain, frustration and the possiblity to suffer from contractures and physical injuries related to physical load exerted to the impaired arms.

While AOT have been since now tested in a single modality, that is showing video without any sounds, we are conducting two parallel investigations testing the effect of a bimodal (video & audio and video & touch) stimulation in order to foster multisensory integration.

In order to verify the activation level of the motor cortex, we mainly employ EEG analysis, while several devices are under investigations and design in order to deliver the proper tactile stimulation.

Tests are conducted with adults, healthy children, children affected by cerebral palsy and elderly patients affected by a Mild Cognitive Impairment.

We are currently collaborating with the "Unit of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation" of Hospital G. Gaslini (Genova, Italy) and with the Fondazione Don Gnocchi (Milan, Italy).



IIT's website uses the following types of cookies: browsing/session, analytics, functional and third party cookies. Users can choose whether or not to accept the use of cookies and access the website.
By clicking on further information, the full information notice on the types of cookies used will be displayed and you will be able to choose whether or not to accept cookies whilst browsing on the website.

Try our new site and tell us what you think
Take me there