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The Mirror Neuron Theory of Autism A Literature Review Zackery A. Tedder Texas State University ± San Marcos
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM Abstract Mirror Neurons have been a source of research since they were discovered in the early 1990s. Ongoing research is attempting to identify any link between deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and a dysfunctional Mirror Neuron system. While no specific link is currently supported by existing literature, current research is attempting to show how deficits in this
system might be associated with the manifestation of ASD symptomology. This literature review explores the identification of Mirror Neurons, cites several aspects of their implications in ASD, and observes criticisms in existing literature.
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM The Mirror Neuron Theory of Autism Mirror Neurons (MNs) are described as a mechanism that helps us learn through observation, and are a certain type of neuron that fires while performing an action, and when
observing a similar action in others (Rizzolatti, 2005). These neurons have been an area of study since their discovery in the early 1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Giuseppe Di Pallegrino, Luciano Fadiga, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese (Rizzolatti &Fabbri-Destro, 2010). While their purpose has been highly hypothesized, their true purpose has yet to be determined. Rizzolatti describes their hypothesized purpose are essential the following roles: ³action understanding, imitation, intention understanding, and empathy (Rizzolatti, 2005; Rizzolatti &Arbib, 1998).´There is a considerable amount of evidence pertaining to MNs, but as of yet, it is considerably indirect. Rizzolatti also points out ³there is no single-neuron study showing the existence of mirror neurons (2005).´ In short, the jury is still out on the concreteness of evidence produced in current research. Along with the hypothesized functions listed above, a connection to the language centers of the brain show some implication in the MN system. The pars opercularis (posterior part) of the Inferior Frontal Gyrus paired with the pars triangularus make up Broca¶s area (Greenlee, Oya, Kawasaki, Volkov, Severson, Howard, &Brugge, 2007). It is hypothesized that Broca¶s area has greater function than just language development, but also is implicit in motor tasks having to do with execution, imagination, imitation, and observation of finger movements (Heiser, Iacoboni, Maeda, Marcus, &Mazziotta, 2003; Grafton, Arbib, Fadiga, & Rizzolatti, 1996; Krams, Rushworth, Deiber, Frackowiak, &Passingham, 1998; Iacoboni, Woods, Brass, Bekkering, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 1999; Binkofski, Amunts, Stephan, Posse, Schormann, Freund, Zilles, & Seitz, 2000). These critical functions together have vast implications directly
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM
associated with learning though observation, and how humans organize and analyze information that is presented to them. These functions aside, Executive Functioning skills and development can also be associated with these structures of the brain. Organization of the Mirror System While research in monkeys has been the central area of study for the connection of the Mirror System, human studies have been performed to essentially map out the Mirror Neuron System. The main structures to be noted are the inferior parietal lobule (IPL), the premotor cortex (ventral section), in addition to the caudal part of the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Theseareas are hypothesized to be used for the observation of goal-directed motor-acts (Rizzolatti &Fabbri-Destro, 2010).These several areas are in line with the pars opercularis of Broca¶s Area. Due to their configuration, they are presumed to form the core of the mirror neuron system, dubbed the Parieto-Frontal Mirror System (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004; Fabbri-Destro and Rizzolatti 2008). Previous Research Research by Di Pellegrino, Fogassi, Gallese, and Rizzolatti (1992) is considered the beginning of the MN debate. Through their research in monkeys, they were able to identify the Ventral Premotor Cortex (area F5) as the initial brain structure responsible for imitating motor actions.In this research, neuronal dischargeswere observed while the monkey performed a certain motor act (e.g., grasping an object) and when it observed another individual (monkey or human) performing that or a similar motor act (Di Pellegrino et al. 1992). Because of the notion that monkeys were ³mirroring´ the action, and associated brain areas were firing, the newly identified neurons became known as ³mirror neurons.´
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM Through Di Pellegrino¶s research in monkeys, neurons were identified in the Ventral
Premotor Cortex (area F5) that respond both when the monkey performs a motor act and respond when it observes an object whose physical features fit the type of grip coded by that neuron. These neurons made differentiations for motor act as in grasping or holding, precision grip for smaller objects, and use of the whole hand for large objects.It was then hypothesized that thiswas the mechanism responsible for fine motor and gross motor functioning, but also knowing how to differentiate motor actions depending on what type of object it was negotiating. This small observation led to additional fMRI and EEG studies, which further substantiated their findings. Research by Buccino, Vogt, Ritzl, Fink, Zilles, Freund, & Rizzolatti (2004) sought to determine how this mechanism worked in regards to playing and learning music. The team assembled musicians who played guitar and were capable of learning via observation. Participants observed 4 events in the experimental condition: 1) a model showing a sequence of chords, 2) a period of pause after the demonstration, 3) participants play the chords that were observed, and 4) a period of rest. A control condition was also modeled, where the participants followed the same procedure in the experimental model, with the exception the 3rd step, and instead did nothing. The use of fMRI imaging during both portions of the experiment was to identify neurons that were firing during these events. The results showed there was a circuit that was being encoded in the Inferior Parietal Lobe, and in the Premotor Cortex (the areas previously described as the MN System). It also showed that the same neurons were active in the 3rd step of the experimental condition, and were inactive in the control condition. This experiment supported the findings of Di Pellegrino and team. Autism Spectrum Disorder
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous syndrome characterized by impairment in social skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, coupled with restricted and repetitive behaviors (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). Autism also affects a variety of nervous system structures (i.e., cerebral cortex, cerebellum, brainstem) (Minshew and Williams 2007). With the overlay of what the MN system is responsible for, and what deficits are associated with ASD, it seems intuitive to try and find a link between the two. In 2006, researchersVilayanurRamachandran and Lindsay Obermanwrote an article that appeared in Scientific American. In it, Ramachandran proposed the ³broken mirror hypothesis´ of Autism, and suggested impairment of the MN system in children with ASD is a logical conclusion. He hypothesized that because these same neurons affect processes such as empathy
and perception, it would be logical to assume deficits in these areas of the brain can be attributed to ASD type behaviors. While significant amounts of research have attempted to show a link between the two, a solid link of MN and ASD has yet to be solidified. That is, until recently. In 2010, Researcher Syudo Yamasakiand team of Tokyo, Japan conducted fMRI scans on individuals known to be diagnosed with ASD. Their research yielded results that identified a significant gray matter volume reduction of both the pars opercularis and pars triangularis bilaterally in the subjects with ASD compared with the typical control subjects (Yamasaki,Yamasue,Abe,Suga, Yamada, Inoue, Kuwabara, Kawakubo,Yahata, Aoki, Kano,Kato,&Kasai, 2010). As discussed in previous sections, the areas of the pars opercularis and pars triangularisare integral in social observations of learning and language. These findings are continuing to developing future research areas of the importance of these brain structures, and what their role might play in the development of ASD and associated pervasive
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM developmental disorders. Because of the implications of this new area of research, further studies looking at post-mortem specimens might yield complementary data to support these claims. Criticism Ramachandran¶s theory sparked a significant amount of further research that questioned his hypothesis. Studies by Hamilton suggest that this hypothesis is not fully satisfactory and
needs specifications (Rizzolatti &Fabbri-Destro, 2010). Other studies reported that children with ASD do not present deficits in understanding the goal of motor acts done by others (see Hamilton, Brindley, &Frith, 2007; Bird, Leighton, Press, &Heyes, 2007; Leighton, Bird, Charman, &Heyes, 2008; Southgate and Hamilton 2008). Therefore, it is apparent that this theory is not a universal one, and further implications of this theory need further exploration. As with every paradigm in psychology, nothing is universal. It is clear that ASD exists on a spectrum, and when observed as a continuum, certain theories may not be appropriate for every individual within that continuum. While the ³Broken Mirror´ hypothesis shows some credibility, the MN theory has yet to be universally accepted by all, as well. Until a specific cause is identified, clinicians need to be aware of further changes in biological psychiatry research. In researching this topic, certain limitations appear to be prevalent in the literature. Cultural implications may lend further insight into this area of research, along with other biological paradigms. Researchers should continue to work across available paradigms to develop definable goals, and collaborate in an effort to bring it all together. In doing so, research
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM could have a clearer outcome that could potentially help those whom they are trying to understand. References American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Binkofski, F., Amunts, K., Stephan, K. M., Posse, S., Schormann, T., Freund, H. J., Zilles, K., & Seitz, R. J. (2000). Broca¶s region subserves imagery of motion: a combined cytoarchitectonic and fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping, 11, 273-285. Bird, G., Leighton, J., Press, C., &Heyes, C. (2007). Intact automatic imitation of human and robot actions in autism spectrum disorders. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 274, 3027-3031. Buccino, G., Vogt, S., Ritzl, A., Fink, G., Zilles, K., Freund, H., & Rizzolatti, G.(2004). Neural circuits underlying imitation learning of hand actions: an event-related fMRI study. Neuron, 42, 323-334. Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., Rizzolatti, G. (1992). Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study. Experimental Brain Research, 91, 176-180. Grafton, S. T., Arbib, M. A., Fadiga, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (1996).Localization of grasp representation in humans by positron emission topography. 2. Observation compared with imagination. Experimental Brain Research, 112, 103-111.
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM Greenlee, J. D. W., Oya, H., Kawasaki, H., Volkov, I. O., Severson III, M. A., Howard III, M. A., &Brugge , J. F. (2007). Functional connections within the human inferior frontal gyrus. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 503, 550±559. Hamilton, A. F., Brindley, R. M., &Frith, U. (2007). Imitation and action understanding in autistic spectrum disorders: how valid is the hypothesis of a deficit in the mirror neuron system? Neuropsychologia, 45, 1859-1868. Heiser, M., Iacoboni, M., Maeda, F., Marcus, J., &Mazziotta, J. C. (2003).The essential role of Broca¶s area in imitation.European Journal of Neuroscience, 17, 1123-1128. Iacoboni, M., Woods, R. P., Brass, M., Bekkering, H., Mazziotta, J. C., & Rizzolatti, G. (1999).Cortical mechanisms of human imitation.Science, 286, 2526-2528. Leighton, J., Bird, G., Charman, T., &Heyes, C. (2008). Weak imitative performance is not due to a functional µmirroring¶ deficit in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Neuropsychologia, 46, 1041-1049. Krams, M., Rushworth, M. F. S., Deiber, M. P., Frackowiak, R. S. J., &Passingham, R. E. (1998). The preparation, execution, and suppression of copied movements in the human brain. Experimental Brain Research, 120, 386-398. Ramachandran, V. S. &Oberman, L. M. (2006). Broken mirrors: a theory of autism. Scientific American, Nov. 2006, 62-69. Rizzolatti, G. (2005). The mirror neuron system and its function in humans.Anatomy and Embryology, 210, 419-421.
THE MIRROR NEURON THEORY OF AUTISM Rizzolatti G.,&Arbib M. A. (1998). Language within our grasp.Trends in Neurosciences, 21, 188-194. Southgate, V. & Hamilton, A. F. (2008). Unbroken mirrors: challenging a theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 225-229. Yamasaki, S., Yamasue, H., Abe, O., Suga, M., Yamada, H., Inoue, H., Kuwabara, H., Kawakubo, Y., Yahata, M., Aoki, S., Kano, Y., Kato, N., &Kasai, K. (2010). Reduced
gray matter volume of pars opercularis is associated with impaired social communication in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Biological Psychiatry, 68 (12),11411147.
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