Autistic children have less activation in a brain area containing neurons that are involved in understanding others' state of mind, reports a new study in the January issue of Nature Neuroscience. Abnormal activity in these neurons, called 'mirror neurons', may therefore underlie some of the social deficits found in autism.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate with others and to respond appropriately to environmental cues. Mirror neurons fire both when a person observes someone performing an act and when they perform the same act themselves -- suggesting that the activity of these neurons may be responsible for understanding others' state of mind, which is crucial for social communication. Mirella Dapretto and colleagues studied the brain activity patterns of children with autism as the children either imitated facial gestures or passively watched facial gestures. They found that the autistic children had lower activation in a brain area containing mirror neurons -- the inferior frontal gyrus pars opercularis -- both when watching and imitating facial gestures. The degree of activation of the mirror neurons correlated with measures of social impairment -- the lower the activation, the stronger the impairment.
Mirella Dapretto (University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA)
Abstract available online.
(C) Nature Neuroscience press release.
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