Specific physical or mental practice may induce short- and long-term neuroplastic changes in the motor system and cause tools to become part of one's own body representation. Athletes who use tools as part of their practice may be an excellent model for assessing the neural correlates of possible bodily representation changes that are specific to extensive practice. We used single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation to measure corticospinal excitability in forearm and hand muscles of expert tennis players and novices while they mentally practiced a tennis forehand, table tennis forehand, and a golf drive. The muscles of expert tennis players showed increased corticospinal facilitation during motor imagery of tennis but not golf or table tennis. Novices, although athletes, were not modulated across sports. Subjective reports indicated that only in the tennis imagery condition did experts differ from novices in the ability to form proprioceptive images and to consider the tool as an extension of the hand. Neurophysiological and subjective data converge to suggest a key role of long-term experience in modulating sensorimotor body representations during mental simulation of sports.
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