Brain Science of Aspergers and Autism Pt. 4: Mirror Neurons

Mirror Neurons are the cells in the brain that allow you to feel empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s position and understand how they are feeling. It is why a smile can be contagious. Mirror neurons are the reason we flinch when we see someone get hurt, we can imagine it happening to ourselves, we know what it feels like even if we have never been in this situation.

James R Hurford, of the Linguistics Department at the University of Edinburgh defines a mirror neuron as a neuron (nerve cell) which fires both when performing an action and when observing the same action performed by another creature. Quizlet.com tells us that mirror neurons are important for “understanding actions of others (empathy, interpretation, non-verbal communication)”, which traditionally children with Aspergers and Autism have difficulty with.

Mirror neurons are also important for learning new skills, especially motor skills. A child will observe a parent engaged in a behaviour, and they will often instinctively imitate. A lack of imitative behaviour can be noted in some children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

It has been hypothesised that people with Aspergers and Autism have a lack of mirror neuron activity (1). Most neuroscientists acknowledge that there is a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system.

When I think about my own experiences and look at my son, I believe that we do have mirror neuron activity, especially when it comes to observing pain in others. So I decided to look into this further.

Neuroscientists Lindsay M. Oberman, Edward M. Hubbard, Joseph P. McCleery, Eric L. Altschulera, Vilayanur S. Ramachandrana, Jaime A. Pinedad have done a series of studies into the role of the mirror neuron system and its link with autism.

They have discovered a dysfunction in mirror neuron activity in the sensorimotor cortex, which is involved in observing and imitating motor (movement) behaviours.  This study was undertaken with 10 males with ASD and another 10 males without as control subjects, it is not clear what ages these subjects were. A further study by the same authors discovered that the earlier observed mirror neuron dysfunction was not the case when observing familiar individuals such as family members:

“In conclusion, this study finds that the observation of actions performed by familiar individuals results in mu wave suppression [reduction in brain wave activity from the neurons] in individuals with ASD, while the actions of strangers do not. This is the first study to show normal mu wave suppression during action observation in individuals with ASD. The observation that the MNS [Mirror Neuron System] in ASD may be functioning normally under specific circumstances bodes well for therapeutic interventions aimed at improving social deficits in this population. Perhaps if one could improve the ability in children with ASD to identify with the observed unfamiliar person through behavioural, neurofeedback, or other types of training, one might improve the functioning of the MNS and alleviate some of the behavioural deficits associated with this disorder.”

The Autism Coach website has an article which discusses Mirror Neuron theory and the studies by Oberman, Ramachandrana et al and states:

“The researchers speculate that mirror neuron system may also account for the tendency of autistic individuals to interpret figures of speech literally. Which part of the human brain is involved in this skill of developing overall cognitive maps of understanding from diverse information coming from multiple sensory sources? The angular gyrus, which sits at the crossroads of the brain’s vision, hearing and touch centres, seemed to be a likely candidate because nerve cells with mirror neuron-like properties have been found there. Nonautistic subjects with damage to the angular gyrus have difficulty understanding metaphors, as do many people with autism.”

It goes on to say:

“The discovery of mirror neuron deficiencies in people with autism could be used as an early diagnostic tool.  Physicians could use the lack of mu-wave suppression as a diagnostic tool to identify children with autism in early infancy, so that  therapies can be started as quickly as possible.

The researchers also suggest that biofeedback might used to display the mu waves and then use visual feedback of the display of the mu waves to teach children how to suppress the mu waves, just as biofeedback is used enable people to manifest other brainwave patterns.  A researcher, Pineda, is pursuing this approach, and his preliminary results look promising.

Another approach is to correct chemical imbalances that disable the mirror neurons. These researchers hypothesize that specialized neuromodulators may enhance the activity of mirror neurons involved in emotional responses. According to this approach, the partial depletion of such chemicals could explain the lack of emotional empathy seen in autism, and therefore researchers should look for compounds that stimulate the release of the neuromodulators or mimic their effects on mirror neurons.”

The author of the article gives personal experiences and suggests ways that this knowledge could help a child in the classroom.

The Mirror Neuron theory backs up my own observations over the years that the best (and usually only) way to teach my son within the autism spectrum has been to have him do the task himself.  I have found that standing behind him and using my hands to guide him through a new task was often the fastest, most effective way to teach a new skill.   Demonstrating or lecturing was almost always ineffective.  This research has wider educational implications, leading to the logical conclusion that the  typical public school model of children learning from an instructor lecturing up at the front of a room would fail to teach an autistic child.  An autistic child in a traditional classroom would be likely to be bored, frustrated and unable to learn.  However, these same children can learn if they are guided to carry out the actions of the concepts being taught, as is done in teaching them the acquisition of language through therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis.  This understanding of how children within the autism spectrum learn could completely redefine what constitutes an appropriate education for autistic children and best practices for teaching them in the public schools.”

Another study by Dapretto, Davies et al discovered that “high-functioning children with autism showed reduced mirror neuron activity in the brain’s inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis) while imitating and observing emotional expressions”, which could explain why people with ASD have more difficulty recognising emotion in facial expressions. Their study used 9 male children with ASD and 9 controls.

But there is hope for the person with ASD. Recently it has been discovered that rather than there being a lifelong dysfunction in the mirror neuron system, that it may just be delayed in developing. In an article published in Biological Psychiatry the author suggests that the mirror neuron system develops over time:

“Dr. Christian Keysers, lead author on the project, detailed their findings, “While most of us have their strongest mirror activity while they are young, autistic individuals seem to have a weak mirror system in their youth, but their mirror activity increases with age, is normal by about age 30 and unusually high thereafter.” This increase in function of mirror neuron systems may be related to increased capacity for social function or responsiveness to rehabilitative treatments among individuals with autism. The finding of late developing circuit functions could be very important. One wonders whether the recent breakthroughs in the genetics of autism could help to identify causes for the developmental delays. This type of bridge might help to identify novel treatment mechanisms for autism,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. One of the next steps in this line of research will be for researchers to examine how individuals with autism accomplish this improvement over time, and how therapeutic interventions targeting the same mechanism can help to support this important process.” (2)

It is also possible that only certain areas of the Mirror Neuron System are affected. More study is needed.

Christian Keyser on mirror neurons

References:

(1) Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina
(2) scienceblog.com

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