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The mirror neuron system in children with autism

Raphael Bernier, Ph.D.
University of Washington


Mirror neurons are nerve cells that are activated when an individual observes an action being performed by someone else. These neurons are believed to be involved in cognitive abilities such as empathy and learning by imitation — skills that are often impaired in people with autism. Raphael Bernier at the University of Washington is exploring a potential link between mirror neuron dysfunction and autism, which could help elucidate how the disorder develops, and might provide a basis for early detection and intervention.

Research has suggested that mirror neurons only fire when an individual observes an action with which he or she has experience, leading Bernier to hypothesize that the dysfunction of mirror neurons in individuals with autism is caused by a lack of experience with social interaction. Bernier’s study involves an early intervention designed to increase cognitive and social skills in children with autism. The study includes three groups of children who completed a previous trial — those with autism who received the intervention, those with autism who didn’t, and typically developing controls. Bernier uses electroencephalography to detect electrical activity associated with activated mirror neurons in the children while they observe and attempt to imitate a task. Comparing activation patterns among the three groups may indicate whether the intervention can help normalize mirror neuron function.

To date, Bernier’s team has examined neurophysiological activity in 28 children with autism and 26 typically developing children, and they have begun processing the electrophysiological data. In the remaining months of the study, they aim to collect data from the remaining children with autism as they complete their intervention trial and return to the University of Washington for follow up assessments.

In addition, the social experience provided by the trial intervention might help improve mirror neuron function in children with autism. To test this, Bernier plans to perform similar comparisons of mirror neuron activity between children from the three groups while they watch an adult perform hand and facial movements. He also plans to test the effect of non-biological stimuli, such as the movement of a toy, which children with autism tend to prefer over social interaction.