Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Mirror Neurons

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 24, 2012

Marello Dapretto PhD spoke today about how mirror neurons are abnormal in those with ASD-autism spectrum disorder. It was one of those lectures where I felt like I already knew this, and so I was not learning anything, but at the same time, she was demonstrating with pretty fMRI pictures that what I/we have suspected for years, is finally being proven with our imaging technology. That is, we now can demonstrate that those individuals with ASD have a defective wiring in their ability to imagine what others are thinking or imagining. In other words, their “theory of mind” is impaired, and the level of their impairment matches the level of defect in their mirror neurons. In other words, this is a continuum of damage, resulting in the “S” or the spectrum concept. Sure, there are workarounds to the mirror neuron system. Children can learn to understand human behavior and they can learn empathy, but they will have to bring in another neurological system since their mirror neurons do not fire properly. For years, in my training from 1986-1991, we told families of those with ASD that there was a “wiring problem” without any specific knowledge about what that wiring problem might be. We felt certain that parents should not blame themselves for the social awkwardness of their children, but at the same time, parents can help fix the problem. Listening to Dr. Dapretto today, confirmed what we told parents, back in the day. Phew!

8 Responses to “Mirror Neurons”

  1. Jon said

    It is a relief to have experimental data the backup conjectures. Some might even say it is a scientific necessity, if one were to be doing science.

    However, I would posit that being able to view images of fMRI showing “what I/we have suspected for years” is just the small step in a much greater understanding of autism spectrum disorder, and that might be just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” The old “’wiring problem’ without any specific knowledge about what that wiring problem might be” is perhaps analogous to the understanding that DNA was the transmitter of genetic information before Watson and Crick understood the structure and mechanism of that transmission. We may be in for a much deeper (and potentially more dangerous) understanding of the way peoples’ minds works.

    • Hi Jon,
      That is absolutely right. I feel like I started my career with the paradigm shift from “refrigerator parents” as the cause of autism, to a belief that this is a “brain disorder.” As time marches along, and our scientists are hard at work, there is a greater refinement to the understanding of “brain disorder.” This is an exciting time for neuroscience. The interesection of social skills and language skills is going to be more clearly understood. Right now, we just know that language skills and social skills seem to originate in areas of the brain which sends signals to one another. On a gross level, we know that impairment in language often means impairment in socialization. It is exciting to see how this concept will or won’t be refined by data which demonstrates these connections. fMRI’s have helped us have a noninvasive way of looking at brain function. Applying this to children with ASD is an exciting area to follow. Stay tuned and thanks, as always, for your comments.

  2. Shelly said

    So what other system will a young adult (aged 18) with ASD need to bring in in order to understand empathy since his theory of mind is impaired and all our efforts in teaching him empathy have come to naught? How can we fix the problem, as you say?

    • The question is whether there is a workaround given the assumption that the mirror neurons are impaired or not there at all. The possible workaround is to use his cognitive skills to make him see that getting along with people is essential for forward movement in life. If he cannot understand that concept, then this will be an uphill battle. Essentially, mirror neurons are our neurological explanation for empathy, and if empathy, or mirror neurons are lacking, then the next best thing is learning cognitive strategies for advancement. In other words, the person may not feel for others, but they can “know” what the best thing to do is, somewhat in a rote way, but that is better than nothing. Of course, the wiring for “knowing” may also be off, in which case, it is almost impossible to teach some individuals why it is important to be, or at the very least, act, in a compassionate manner. Again, we are assuming from the clinical picture, the deficits in the brain. We are in a primitive phase of understanding this issue of social-communication disorders. Thanks, as always.

  3. Ralph said

    I used to think HFA/Aspergers was caused by mirror neuron issues, but not any more. I’m diagnosed aspergers, and find I’m very sensitive to basic feelings. When people around me feel happy, I feel it too.
    The sally-anne eye tracking test results with aspergers doesn’t seem to point to a mirror neuron issue.
    I think many social skills are inherited epigenetically, and some people on the spectrum are missing some of those. Without the same emotional instincts, you can’t simulate what someone else feels.

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