When pliers become fingers in the monkey motor system

M. A. Umiltà, L. Escola, I. Intskirveli, F. Grammont, M. Rochat, F. Caruana, A. Jezzini, V. Gallese, G. Rizzolatti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

275 Scopus citations


The capacity to use tools is a fundamental evolutionary achievement. Its essence stands in the capacity to transfer a proximal goal (grasp a tool) to a distal goal (e.g., grasp food). Where and how does this goal transfer occur? Here, we show that, in monkeys trained to use tools, cortical motor neurons, active during hand grasping, also become active during grasping with pliers, as if the pliers were now the hand fingers. This motor embodiment occurs both for normal pliers and for "reverse pliers," an implement that requires finger opening, instead of their closing, to grasp an object. We conclude that the capacity to use tools is based on an inherently goal-centered functional organization of primate cortical motor areas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2209-2213
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Feb 12 2008


  • Goal coding
  • Motor act
  • Neurophysiology
  • Tool use


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