Monday, April 9, 2012

Autism: Mirror Neurons and Self-understanding

Recent findings are rapidly expanding researchers' understanding of a new class of brain cells, mirror neurons, which are active both when people perform an action and when they watch it being performed.

Some scientists speculate that a mirror system in people's 'perception' forms the basis for social behaviour, for our ability to imitate, acquire language, and show empathy and understanding.

It also may have played a role in the evolution of speech. Mirror neurons were so named because they fire, both when an animal acts and when it simply watches the same action. They were thought to "mirror" movement, as though the observer itself were acting.

Advances in the past few years have newly defined different types of mirror neurons in monkeys and shown how finely tuned these subsets of mirror neurons can be.

New studies also have further characterized both normal and abnormal, mirror activity in the brains of children with Autism, a social communication disorder, suggesting new approaches to treatment.

"The tremendous excitement that has been generated in the field by the study of mirror neurons stems from the implications of the findings, which have led to numerous new hypotheses about behavior, human evolution, and neuro-developmental disorders," says Mahlon DeLong, MD, of Emory University School of Medicine.

Mirror neurons, a class of nerve cells in areas of the brain relaying signals for planning movement and carrying it out, were discovered 11 years ago, an offshoot of studies examining hand and mouth movements in monkeys.

Mirror neuron research in the intervening years has expanded into a diverse array of fields and the implications have been enormous, encompassing; evolutionary development, theories of self and mind, and treatments for schizophrenia and stroke.

Findings include new research based on work in monkeys, showing that subsets of mirror neurons distinguish between observed actions carried out within hand's reach and those beyond the animal's personal space.

Read more of this article here: Mirror, Mirror In The Brain: Mirror Neurons, Self-understanding And Autism Research

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