Sensorimotor Experiences


Mental Representations

What We Do

Perception and representation: how we see and interpret, how do we make sense and represent the external world.

Research activities within this topic exploit advanced tools in cognitive neuroscience to characterize the neural correlates of perception and content-specific mental representations, semantic processing and knowledge organization, action representation 


Who We Are

Principal InvestigatorFull Professor, MD PhD
Scholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
PhD Student
Methods Developer, MD, PhD
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PhD Student
Assistant Professor, PhD
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PhD Student
Research Collaborator, PhD

PhD Student
Research Collaborator, PhD

PhD Student
Research Collaborator, PhD

PhD Student
PhD Student
PhD Student
PhD Student

What We Publish

Dissecting abstract, modality-specific and experience-dependent coding of affect in the human brain (2024)

Lettieri, Handjaras, Cappello, Setti, Bottari, Bruno, Diano, Leo, Tinti, Garbarini, Pietrini, Ricciardi, CecchettiScience Advances, 2024. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adk6840
ABSTRACT: Emotion and perception are tightly intertwined, as affective experiences often arise from the appraisal of sensory information. Nonetheless, whether the brain encodes emotional instances using a sensory-specific code or in a more abstract manner is unclear. Here, we answer this question by measuring the association between emotion ratings collected during a unisensory or multisensory presentation of a full-length movie and brain activity recorded in typically developed, congenitally blind and congenitally deaf participants. Emotional instances are encoded in a vast network encompassing sensory, prefrontal, and temporal cortices. Within this network, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex stores a categorical representation of emotion independent of modality and previous sensory experience, and the posterior superior temporal cortex maps the valence dimension using an abstract code. Sensory experience more than modality affects how the brain organizes emotional information outside supramodal regions, suggesting the existence of a scaffold for the representation of emotional states where sensory inputs during development shape its functioning. 

The supramodality “spillover” from neuroscience to cognitive sciences: a commentary on Calzavarini (2023)

Ricciardi E, Pietrini P. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience 2023 doi: 10.1080/23273798.2023.2218502
ABSTRACT: This is a commentary on Calzavarini (2023), Rethinking Modality-Specificity in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Concrete Word Meaning: A Position Paper 10.1080/23273798.2023.2173789.

A modality-independent proto-organization of human multisensory areas

Setti F, Handjaras G, Bottari D, Leo A, Diano M, Bruno V, Tinti C, Cecchetti L, Garbarini F, Pietrini P, Ricciardi E. Nat Hum Behav 2023 doi: 10.1038/s41562-022-01507-3
ABSTRACT: The processing of multisensory information is based upon the capacity of brain regions, such as the superior temporal cortex, to combine information across modalities. However, it is still unclear whether the representation of coherent auditory and visual events requires any prior audiovisual experience to develop and function. Here we measured brain synchronization during the presentation of an audiovisual, audio-only or video-only version of the same narrative in distinct groups of sensory-deprived (congenitally blind and deaf) and typically developed individuals. Intersubject correlation analysis revealed that the superior temporal cortex was synchronized across auditory and visual conditions, even in sensory-deprived individuals who lack any audiovisual experience. This synchronization was primarily mediated by low-level perceptual features, and relied on a similar modality-independent topographical organization of slow temporal dynamics. The human superior temporal cortex is naturally endowed with a functional scaffolding to yield a common representation across multisensory events.

Overlapping and specific neural correlates for empathizing, affective mentalizing, and cognitive mentalizing: A coordinate- based meta-analytic study

Arioli M, Cattaneo Z, Ricciardi E, Canessa N. Hum Brain Mapp. 2021 doi: 10.1002/hbm.25570
ABSTRACT: While the discussion on the foundations of social understanding mainly revolves around the notions of empathy, affective mentalizing, and cognitive mentalizing, their degree of overlap versus specificity is still unclear. We took a meta-analytic approach to unveil the neural bases of cognitive mentalizing, affective mentalizing, and empa- thy, both in healthy individuals and pathological conditions characterized by social deficits such as schizophrenia and autism. We observed partially overlapping net- works for cognitive and affective mentalizing in the medial prefrontal, posterior cin- gulate, and lateral temporal cortex, while empathy mainly engaged fronto-insular, somatosensory, and anterior cingulate cortex. Adjacent process-specific regions in the posterior lateral temporal, ventrolateral, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex might underpin a transition from abstract representations of cognitive mental states detached from sensory facets to emotionally-charged representations of affective mental states. Altered mentalizing-related activity involved distinct sectors of the posterior lateral temporal cortex in schizophrenia and autism, while only the latter group displayed abnormal empathy related activity in the amygdala. These data might inform the design of rehabilitative treatments for social cognitive deficits.

U-Limb: A multi-modal, multi-center database on arm motion control in healthy and post-stroke conditions

Averta G, Barontini F, Catrambone V, Haddadin S, Handjaras G, Held JPO, Hu T, Jakubowitz E, Kanzler CM, Kühn J, Lambercy O, Leo A, Obermeier A, Ricciardi E, Schwarz A, Valenza G, Bicchi A, Bianchi M. Gigascience. 2021 Jun 18;10(6):giab043. doi: 10.1093/gigascience/giab043.
ABSTRACT:  Background: Shedding light on the neuroscientific mechanisms of human upper limb motor control, in both healthy and disease conditions (e.g., after a stroke), can help to devise effective tools for a quantitative evaluation of the impaired conditions, and to properly inform the rehabilitative process. Furthermore, the design and control of mechatronic devices can also benefit from such neuroscientific outcomes, with important implications for assistive and rehabilitation robotics and advanced human-machine interaction. To reach these goals, we believe that an exhaustive data collection on human behavior is a mandatory step. For this reason, we release U-Limb, a large, multi-modal, multi-center data collection on human upper limb movements, with the aim of fostering trans-disciplinary cross-fertilization.Contribution: This collection of signals consists of data from 91 able-bodied and 65 post-stroke participants and is organized at 3 levels: (i) upper limb daily living activities, during which kinematic and physiological signals (electromyography, electro-encephalography, and electrocardiography) were recorded; (ii) force-kinematic behavior during precise manipulation tasks with a haptic device; and (iii) brain activity during hand control using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Shape coding in occipito-temporal cortex relies on object silhouette, curvature, and medial axis

Papale P, Leo A, Handjaras G, Cecchetti L, Pietrini P, Ricciardi E. J Neurophysiol. 2020 Dec 1;124(6):1560-1570. doi: 10.1152/jn.00212.2020. Epub 2020 Oct 14.
ABSTRACT: Object recognition relies on different transformations of the retinal input, carried out by the visual system, that range from local contrast to object shape and category. While some of those transformations are thought to occur at specific stages of the visual hierarchy, the features they represent are correlated (e.g., object shape and identity) and selectivity for the same feature overlaps in many brain regions. This may be explained either by collinearity across representations or may instead reflect the coding of multiple dimensions by the same cortical population. Moreover, orthogonal and shared components may differently impact distinctive stages of the visual hierarchy. We recorded functional MRI activity while participants passively attended to object images and employed a statistical approach that partitioned orthogonal and shared object representations to reveal their relative impact on brain processing. Orthogonal shape representations (silhouette, curvature, and medial axis) independently explained distinct and overlapping clusters of selectivity in the occitotemporal and parietal cortex. Moreover, we show that the relevance of shared representations linearly increases moving from posterior to anterior regions. These results indicate that the visual cortex encodes shared relations between different features in a topographic fashion and that object shape is encoded along different dimensions, each representing orthogonal features.

The sensory-deprived brain as a unique tool to understand brain development and function

Ricciardi E, Bottari D, Ptito M, Roeder B, Pietrini P. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 108:78-82. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.10.017. Epub 2019 Oct 28, Jan 2020.
On October 11th–13th 2018, the second edition of “The Blind Brain Workshop” was held in Lucca (Italy), which gathered most among the leading worldwide experts in the study of the sensory-deprived brain. The aim of the workshop was to tackle, from multiple and different perspectives, the current conceptual and methodological challenges on the topic and to understand how perceptual experience sculpts the brain during development, as well as in adulthood.Altogether, the contributions of this three-day workshop empha- sized that the current understanding of the structural and functional organization as well as the development of the brain has significantly been promoted by the studies on the consequences of sensory-depri- vation both in humans and animals. Nevertheless, by providing a un- ique opportunity for a direct comparison of different sensory-depriva- tion models, the workshop has uncovered open aspects in blindness, deafness and even somatosensory deprivation research. Suggestions for a substantial rethinking were postulated. The event additionally high- lighted the role of early sensory experiences for functional develop- ment. In particular, the research on sensory-restoration has provided first evidence for the role of experience in typical development of dif- ferent neural systems.
See the whole Special Issue 'Rethinking the sensory-deprived brain: hints from the Blind Brain Workshop 2018' on Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews

Common spatiotemporal processing of visual features shapes object representation.

Papale P, Betta M, Handjaras G, Malfatti G, Rampinini AC, Cecchetti L, Pietrini P, Ricciardi E, Turella L, Leo A.  Scientific Reports, 9(1),7601, 2019.
ABSTRACT: Biological vision relies on representations of the physical world at different levels of complexity.Relevant features span from simple low-level properties, as contrast and spatial frequencies, to object-based attributes, as shape and category. However, how these features are integrated into coherent percepts is still debated. Moreover, these dimensions often share common biases: for instance, stimuli from the same category (e.g., tools) may have similar shapes. Here, using magnetoencephalography, we revealed the temporal dynamics of feature processing in human subjects attending to objects from six semantic categories. By employing Relative Weights Analysis, we mitigated collinearity between model-based descriptions of stimuli and showed that low-level properties (contrast and spatial frequencies), shape (medial-axis) and category are represented within the same spatial locationsearly in time: 100–150 ms after stimulus onset. This fast and overlapping processing may result fromindependent parallel computations, with categorical representation emerging later than the onsetof low-level feature processing, yet before shape coding. Categorical information is represented both before and after shape, suggesting a role for this feature in the refinement of categorical matching.

How concepts are encoded in the human brain: A modality independent, category-based cortical organization of semantic knowledge

Handjaras G, Ricciardi E (co-first author), Leo A, Lenci A, Cecchetti L, Cosottini M, Marotta G, Pietrini P. Neuroimage, 135:232-242, 2016
ABSTRACT: How conceptual knowledge is represented in the human brain remains to be determined. To address the differ- ential role of low-level sensory-based and high-level abstract features in semantic processing, we combined be- havioral studies of linguistic production and brain activity measures by functional magnetic resonance imaging in sighted and congenitally blind individuals while they performed a property-generation task with concrete nouns from eight categories, presented through visual and/or auditory modalities. Patterns of neural activity within a large semantic cortical network that comprised parahippocampal, lateral occipital, temporo-parieto-occipital and inferior parietal cortices correlated with linguistic production and were in- dependent both from the modality of stimulus presentation (either visual or auditory) and the (lack of) visual experience. In contrast, selected modality-dependent differences were observed only when the analysis was lim- ited to the individual regions within the semantic cortical network. We conclude that conceptual knowledge in the human brain relies on a distributed, modality-independent cortical representation that integrates the partial category and modality specific information retained at a regional level.
See also Handjaras G, Leo A, Cecchetti L, Papale P, Lenci A, Marotta G, Pietrini P, Ricciardi E. Modality-independent encoding of individual concepts in the left parietal cortex. Neuropsychologia. 105:39-49, 2017 - doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.05.001

A synergy-based hand control is encoded in human motor cortical areas

Leo A, Handjaras G, Bianchi M, Marino H, Gabiccini M, Guidi A, Scilingo EP, Pietrini P, Bicchi A, Santello M, Ricciardi E. Elife, 2016 Feb 16;5 pii: e13420. doi: 10.7554/eLife.13420
ABSTRACT: How the human brain controls hand movements to carry out different tasks is still debated. The concept of synergy has been proposed to indicate functional modules that may simplify the control of hand postures by simultaneously recruiting sets of muscles and joints. However, whether and to what extent synergic hand postures are encoded as such at a cortical level remains unknown. Here, we combined kinematic, electromyography, and brain activity measures obtained by functional magnetic resonance imaging while subjects performed a variety of movements towards virtual objects. Hand postural information, encoded through kinematic synergies, were represented in cortical areas devoted to hand motor control and successfully discriminated individual grasping movements, significantly outperforming alternative somatotopic or muscle-based models. Importantly, hand postural synergies were predicted by neural activation patterns within primary motor cortex. These findings support a novel cortical organization for hand movement control and open potential applications for brain-computer interfaces and neuroprostheses.

Our collaborations

What We Develop

fMRI encoding/decoding algorithms 

Modelling approaches

Our Recent Talks and Presentations

Emiliano Ricciardi - Invited Lecture: Rethinking the sensory deprived brain: how blindness improved our vision on brain function” – November 23, 2023 – ETH, Zurich, Switzerland; December 14, 2023 – IRCSS Medea, Bosisio Parini; May 13, 2024 - Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, Amsterdam; May 21, 2024 -University of Parma

Emiliano Ricciardi - Oral presentation ‘fMRI and naturalistic stimulation in sensory-deprivation to study modality-(in)dependent brain organization’ - Workshop “Modeling the interacting brain in naturalistic settings” – Lucca, Feb 3-4, 2024

Emiliano Ricciardi - Oral presentation: “A modality independent proto-organization of human multisensory areas”, XIII Congresso Nazionale Associazione Italiana Risonanza Magnetica in Medicina, November 24, 2022 – Pisa, Italy

Francesca Setti - Oral presentation: 'A modality independent proto-organization of human multisensory areas',  Symposium 'New insights on multisensory brain organization from MVPA to high field fMRI', Chair(s): Gaglianese A, Murray MM. 20th International Multisensory Research Forum, Ulm University, July 04-07, 2022

Emiliano Ricciardi - Online invited Lecture: ““Rethinking the sensory deprived brain”, Neurowebinars, April 1, 2022

Emiliano Ricciardi - Invited Lecture: “Una visione neuroscientifica della Disprassia: ipotesi e interpretazioni da studi di neuroscienze” – Convegno Nazionale Scientifico Associazione Italiana Disprassie dell’Età Evolutiva, Rome (Italy), October 11, 2021

Emiliano Ricciardi -  Invited Lecture entitled “Multivariate approaches in neuroimaging: from supramodal to cognitive and motor representations” - Symposium on “New technologies for rehabilitatition” organized by ETH Zurich, Volterra (Italy), September 9, 2021

Emiliano Ricciardi -  Invited Lecture entitled ''One, No One and One Hundred Thousand: from brain activation to information content' at the 'Symposium by the International Organization of Pyschophysiology, 2020' -  International Society of Neuroregulation and  Research 28th Annual Conference, July 31, 2020

Francesca Setti, Adrian Onicas and Francesca Simonelli - Poster presentation at Virtual Annual Meeting of the Human Brain Mapping Organization 2020 - June 2020