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Imitation and Parkinson's Disease

Exploring the characteristics of imitation in Parkinson’s disease

Ellen and Emma have been awarded a 3-year grant from the ESRC to study imitation in Parkinson's disease. The project is part of our broader research programme on representing action in Parkinson’s disease (PD), and will explore the characteristics and therapeutic potential of imitation in PD. 

Areas of the brain involved in representing and planning movement have been found to be activated even when we simply observe an action; this is known as the mirror system. Observing another person’s movement can thus prime us to perform the movement ourselves.  Imitation involves both observation and action, potentially providing a powerful means of engaging the motor system.

Imitation is an important process in both learning and social interaction. Research with healthy adults has shown that observing, imagining and imitating actions can improve movement and increase learning, and imitation is more effective at influencing movement than observation or motor imagery.  In PD, cues such as visual markers or auditory tones have been found to help improve aspects of movement, such as step length and timing.  Dynamic movement cues obtained from observing and imitating actions may be more effective than other forms of cueing, and recent studies have indicated some benefits of imitation practice within rehabilitation programmes for stroke and PD.

Previous findings indicate that action may be represented differently in PD than in people without PD, but differences in imitation have not been systematically investigated. In a series of experiments, we will use motion-tracking technology to examine how well people with PD and neurologically healthy older adults imitate movement, and to identify the most effective conditions and stimuli for imitation. For example, we will explore whether movements are copied more accurately when there is a visual target for the movement, or when the movement is carried out by a human rather than an inanimate shape. We will also examine the relationship of imitation with other skills such as spatial memory, attention, and mental imagery, to help clarify the processes involved in imitation and the skills that are needed in order to be able to benefit from imitation training.

The project involves collaboration with Emma Stack from the University of Southampton, Stefan Vogt and Trevor Crawford from Lancaster University, and Jeremy Dick, neurologist at Salford Royal Hospital.  A person with Parkinson’s will also be providing valuable input into the project, and we will be planning a range of activities to engage with patients, professionals and the public.

Dr Judith Bek has been appointed as Research Associate on the project and can be contacted at for further information.  If you would like to receive information on future events relating to the project please register your interest here:

The project has been featured in the Summer 2014 Progress magazine (p15).

We hosted a workshop on action observation and imitation in Parkinson’s on 8th April 2016. Please see here for information.