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Autism Coach

Mirror Neuron Theory of Autism - Part 2


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The latest research on mirror neurons, published by in the November 7, 2007 issue of the Society for Neuroscience, may lead to new treatments for autism. Mirror neurons are used to imitate others and acquire language. When you perform a voluntary action, such as picking up a pencil, a set of “command” neurons activate. When you watch someone else pick up a pencil a subset of these neurons, called ” mirror” neurons activate. It is believed that mirror neurons enable us to learn through imitation.   In autism, however, the mirror neurons do not typically activate, when observing activity, leading to the implication that people with autism primarily learn by doing and do not tend to learn by watching others.  The latest research includes retraining the brain to activate the mirror neurons.

In recent research on mirror neurons in monkeys by Peter Their, PhD at Tübingen University and Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, at the University of Parma, a subset of mirror neurons were active only when the monkey was watching activity within reach; others responded only to actions performed in a place outside the monkey's reach. Half of the mirror neurons showed activity that did not depend on how close the activity was to the monkey. Thier believes that the closeness of the activity helps us monitor what goes on around us, and helps us determine the intentions of others and provides with the feedback we need to appropriately to interact with others. Other findings show that mirror neuron activity interprets facial expressions and actions of others.

The studies examined changes in brain wave patterns known as mu rhythms. The sensorimotor cortex , the part of the brain that transmits signals for movement and sensing stimuli, suppresses mu rhythms when mirror neurons are activated. However, this does not happen in children with autism.  Instead, the mu rhythms are actually enhanced.

Jaime Pineda, PhD, at the University of California , San Diego , first tested 23 neurotypical adults, who were asked to look at photos showing just the eye region of people making various facial expressions. In three separate trials, the subjects were asked to identify either the emotion, race, or gender of the people in the photographs. In a subsequent task, subjects looked at three-panel cartoon strips and were asked to choose a fourth panel that completed the strip-either the conclusion of a series of physical actions or the result of a person interacting with an object. A sequence of a prisoner removing the window of his cell, then looking at his bed, for example, could be followed by a frame of the prisoner asleep, yawning, or using the bedsheet to make a rope. Answering correctly depended on interpreting the cartoon character's intentions appropriately or understanding how physical objects interact.

Pineda repeated the studies with 28 children, 7 to 17 years old, half of whom had autism. The other half were typically developing children. In the children with autism, the mu rhythms were enhanced rather than suppressed during both tasks. This may mean that the mirror neuron system is disengaged. However, because the children still were able to perform the task, Pineda proposes that autistic children have found another coping strategy for understanding others that inhibits mirror neuron functioning.

This has lead Pineda to use neurofeedback training to successfully renormalize mu suppression in autistic children. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that mirror neurons are not absent in autism," Pineda says, "but rather are abnormally responsive to stimuli and abnormally integrated into wider social-cognitive brain circuits. This idea implies that a retraining of mirror neurons to respond appropriately to stimuli and integrate normally into wider circuits may reduce the social symptoms of autism."

Other recent research by Lindsay Oberman, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego, based on EEG recordings provide the first evidence of normal mirror activity in children with autism: People familiar to children with autism may activate mirror neuron areas of the brain in normal patterns when unfamiliar people do not.

Six videos were shown to a group of 26 boys, 8 to 12 years old; half had autism. Three videos showed images representing varying degrees of social interaction: two bouncing balls (the baseline measurement), three people tossing a ball to themselves, and three people throwing the ball to each other and off the screen to the viewer. The other set of videos showed people with varying degrees of familiarity to the subjects: strangers opening and closing their hand, family members making the same hand movement, and the subjects themselves doing the same.

EEG recordings from 13 electrodes in a cap showed that mu activity was suppressed most when subjects watched videos of themselves, indicating the greatest mirror neuron activity. For both groups, the measurements showed a slightly lower level of suppression when subjects watched familiar people in the video and the least when watching strangers. This indicates that normal mirror neuron activity was evoked when children with autism watched family members, but not strangers.

"Thus, to say that the mirror neuron system is nonfunctional may only be partially correct," says Oberman. "Perhaps individuals with autism have fewer mirror neurons and/or less functional mirror neurons that require a greater degree of activation than a typical child's system in order to respond."

This normal mirror neuron activity in autistic children indicates that mirror system dysfunction reflects an impairment in identifying with and assigning personal significance to unfamiliar people and things, Oberman suggests.

Although this research may eventually lead to neurofeedback treatments to help autistic children learn through imitation, it also provides us with useful insights we can use to help our kids right now. Obviously, these kids learn by doing and needed to be guided, hand-over-hand to acquire new skills. One of the reasons ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) is so effective is because it uses this approach. Other implications are that a child may not learn in a traditional classroom with a teacher lecturing at the front of a room, hands-on learning is best, that physical closeness to modeled activities is more stimulating than sitting far away and its best to have someone the child knows well and likes model activities for optimal learning through imitation.  This is incredibly useful information to have in our arsenal of techniques to help our kids.