The Mirror in Your Brain

Autism spectrum disorder linked to decreased activity in mirror neurons

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The mirror neuron system in your brain influences your emotions when you watch another human being. Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) might not have this system working properly.

Impaired social functioning is one of the main symptoms of ASD. Those with the greatest social impairment have been shown to also have the lowest brain activity in the mirror neuron system.

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Peter Enticott, Ph.D., Research Fellow of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing & Health Sciences at Monash University, notes that "we do not have a substantial understanding of the brain basis of autism spectrum disorder, or a validated biomedical treatment for the disorder.”

This research is an attempt to better understand the relationship between brain function and symptoms. “If we can develop a substantial understanding of the biology of specific symptoms, this will allow us to develop treatments targeted specifically to the symptoms," says Enticott.

34 participants with ASD and 36 participants without ASD watched hand gestures while the team of researchers monitored their brain activity. The brain activity was studied using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a complex non-invasive method of monitoring brain activity.

Those participants with ASD showed less activity in the mirror neuron system that those without ASD. In those with ASD, the amount of activity was correlated to the severity of social disability. In other words, those that had the greatest disability also showed the least brain function.

The cause-effect relationship between the disorder and the decreased brain activity has yet to be determined. Glenn Elliott, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Children's Health Council, points out that “the observed low functioning of mirror neurons might simply reflect the relative lack of interest, or salience, of the social stimuli. The next step is to find a way to stimulate mirror neuron activity to see if that would then subsequently alter social interests and interactions.”

The team plans to find out if stimulating the mirror neuron system could improve social functions in those with ASD in future research.

"We are currently investigating whether non-invasive brain stimulation can be used to improve mirror neuron activity in autism spectrum disorder, which would have substantial potential therapeutic implications," adds Enticott.

The study was published in the March 2012 edition of the journal Biological Psychiatry and was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 6, 2012
Last Updated:
March 7, 2012