New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

Researchers Find Mirror Neuron System Functions Normally In Individuals with Autism

May 12, 2010
399

A team of neuroscientists has found that the mirror neuron system, which is thought to play a central role in social communications, responds normally in individuals with autism. Their findings, reported in the journal Neuron, counter theories suggesting that a mirror system dysfunction causes the social difficulties exhibited by individuals with autism.

The mirror neuron system, the focal point of the Neuron study, is composed of two brain areas, which have a unique characteristic—they are active both when we execute movements (e.g. grasping a cup of coffee) and when we passively observe other people executing those same movements. It has been known for many years that these brain areas are important for proper motor control because trauma to these areas causes movement deficits. Yet it has only recently been discovered that these brain areas respond when passively observing others. It has been proposed that this activity represents a process of “movement simulation” that enables us to understand the meanings and the goals of movements we observe.

For the simulation process to work properly, it is imperative that we simulate the exact same movement we are observing. This means that neurons within our mirror system must recognize movements and respond with a unique, movement-selective, response to each (or else we’ll confuse different movements and attribute improper goals to the person we’re observing).

Because individuals with autism have difficulty communicating socially and understanding the emotions and intentions of others, it has been hypothesized that they may have a dysfunction in their mirror neuron system. This hypothesis has received a tremendous amount of attention in both the popular and scientific literatures following a number of studies that reported weak mirror neuron system responses in individuals with autism. The issue of movement-selectivity, however, had not been addressed in these studies.

To further test this influential theory, the researchers asked individuals with autism and a control group to observe and execute different hand movements while being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The fMRI measurements allowed the researchers to infer the strength of neural responses in mirror system areas of each group during movement observation and execution. Their results showed that mirror system areas of individuals with autism not only responded strongly during movement observation, but did so in a movement-selective manner such that different movements exhibited unique neural responses. The mirror system responses of individuals with autism were, therefore, equivalent to those commonly reported (and observed here) for controls.

These results, they conclude, argue strongly against the “dysfunctional mirror system hypothesis of autism” because they show that mirror system areas respond normally in individuals with autism. The authors, therefore, suggest that it may be more productive to re-focus autism research in more promising directions.

The study’s co-authors are: Ilan Dinstein, a former graduate student at New York University and now a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute in Israel; Cibu Thomas, Kate Humphreys, and Marlene Behrmann from Carnegie Mellon University; Nancy Minshew from the University of Pittsburgh; and David Heeger from New York University.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Cure Autism Now, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.


 

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
NYUToday-feature, Arts and Science, Research, Faculty

Type: Press Release

Press Contact: James Devitt | (212) 998-6808

Researchers Find Mirror Neuron System Functions Normally In Individuals with Autism

Neuroscientists have found that the mirror neuron system, which is thought to play a central role in social communications, responds normally in individuals with autism. Their findings counter theories suggesting that a mirror system dysfunction causes the social difficulties exhibited by individuals with autism. Photo © iStockphoto/ktaylorg.


Search News



NYU In the News

Entrepreneurship Lab Opens at NYU

Crain’s New York Business covered the opening of the Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurial eLab, which will be the headquarters for NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute and all of the University’s programs aimed at promoting innovation and startups.

A Globalizer for N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi

The New York Times profiled Bill Bragin who will become the first executive artistic director of NYU Abu Dhabi’s new performing arts center.

Think Tank to Ponder a Future for Ballet

The New York Times profiled Jennifer Homans, the director of NYU’s new Center for Ballet and the Arts.

The Brilliant Ten: Jonathan Viventi Builds Devices That Decode Thoughts

Popular Science named Assistant Bioengineering Professor Jonathan Viventi as one of its “brilliant ten” for his research into brain implants that could one day halt epileptic episodes:

Living and Leaving the Dream: Adrian Cardenas’ Journey from the Major Leagues to College

The New York Times ran a feature on Adrian Cardenas, a former major league baseball player who is now studying philosophy and creating writing at NYU.

NYU Footer