Previous studies have suggested that imitators can reproduce known gestures shown by a model using a semantic, indirect route, and novel gestures using a sublexical, direct route. In the present study we aimed at testing the validity of such a dual-route model of action imitation. Patients with either left-brain damage (LBD) or right-brain damage (RBD) were tested on an action imitation task. Actions were either meaningful (n = 20) or meaningless (n = 20), and were presented in an intermingled list and, on a different day, in separate lists. We predicted that, in the mixed condition, patients would use a direct route to imitate meaningful and meaningless actions, as it allows the imitation of both action types. In the blocked condition, patients were expected to select the semantic route for meaningful actions and the direct route for meaningless actions. As hypothesized, none of the 32 patients showed dissociations between imitation of meaningful and meaningless actions in the mixed presentation. In contrast, eight patients showed a dissociation between imitation of meaningful actions and imitation of meaningless actions in the blocked presentation. Moreover, two of these patients showed a classical double dissociation between the imitation of the two action types. Results were interpreted in support of the validity of a dual-route model for explaining action imitation. We argue that the decrease in imitation of meaningful actions, relative to meaningless actions, is caused by a damage of the semantic route, and that the decline in imitation of meaningless actions, relative to meaningful actions, is produced by a breakdown of the direct route. The brain areas that were lesioned in all six LBD patients who showed a dissociation were in the superior temporal gyrus and the angular gyrus, whereas the two RBD subjects had common lesions of the pallidum and of the putamen. The brain structures affected in our patients with selective apraxia are consistent with those reported before in other neuropsychological reports. They are also in agreement with areas found activated in imaging studies in which the neural mechanisms underlying imitation were examined.
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