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Autism linked to mirror neuron dysfunction

Seeing is doing at least it is when mirror neurons are working normally. But in autistic individuals, say researchers from the University of California, San Diego, the brain circuits that enable people to perceive and understand the actions of others do not behave in the usual way.

According to the new study, currently in press at the journal Cognitive Brain Research, electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings of 10 individuals with autism show a dysfunctional mirror neuron system: Their mirror neurons respond only to what they do and not to the doings of others.

Mirror neurons are brain cells in the premotor cortex. First identified in macaque monkeys in the early 1990s, the neurons also known as "monkey-see, monkey-do cells" fire both when a monkey performs an action itself and when it observes another living creature perform that same action. Though it has been impossible to directly study the analogue of these neurons in people (since human subjects cannot be implanted with electrodes), several indirect brain-imaging measures, including EEG, have confirmed the presence of a mirror neuron system in humans.

The human mirror neuron system is now thought to be involved not only in the execution and observation of movement, but also in higher cognitive processes language, for instance, or being able to imitate and learn from others' actions, or decode their intentions and empathize with their pain.

Because autism is characterized, in part, by deficits in exactly these sorts of social interaction and communication skills, previous research has suggested that a dysfunctional mirror neuron system may explain the observed pathology. The current findings, the researchers say, lend substantial support to the hypothesis.

The UC San Diego team collected EEG data in 10 males with autism spectrum disorders who were considered "high-functioning" (defined as having age-appropriate verbal comprehension and production and IQs above 80
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Contact: Inga Kiderra
ikiderra@ucsd.edu
858-822-0661
University of California - San Diego
29-Mar-2005


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