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. They allow our brain to represent their actions, influences our ability to learn new tasks and helps us understand the intentions and experiences of other people.
Scientists have long suspected that a deficiency in the mirror neuron system has been connected to impaired social function in autism. In a new study, Dr. Peter Enticott at Monash University and his colleagues used trans-cranial magnetic stimulation to stimulate the brains of individuals with ASD and healthy individuals while they observed different hand gestures.
They found that the mirror neuron system in the ASD individuals became less activated when watching the gestures, compared to the control group. In addition, among people with ASD, less mirror neuron activity was associated with greater social impairments. This finding adds to the evidence that deficits in mirror neuron system functioning contribute to the social deficits in ASD.
This is important because “we do not have a substantial understanding of the brain basis of autism spectrum disorder, or a validated biomedical treatment for the disorder,” said Dr. Enticott. “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.”