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Neuropsychologia. 2006;44(4):610-21. Epub 2005 Sep 2.

Neural mechanisms of imitation and 'mirror neuron' functioning in autistic spectrum disorder.

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  • 1Department of Child Health, University of Aberdeen Medical School, Royal Aberdeen Children's Hospital, Aberdeen AB25 2ZG, UK. justin.williams@abdn.ac.uk

Abstract

An association between autistic spectrum disorder and imitative impairment might result from dysfunction in mirror neurons (MNs) that serve to relate observed actions to motor codings. To explore this hypothesis, we employed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) protocol previously used to identify the neural substrate of imitation, and human MN function, to compare 16 adolescent males of normal intelligence with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and age, sex and IQ matched controls. In the control group, in accord with previous findings, we identified activity attributable to MNs in areas of the right parietal lobe. Activity in this area was less extensive in the ASD group and was absent during non-imitative action execution. Broca's area was minimally active during imitation in controls. Differential patterns of activity during imitation and action observation in ASD and controls were most evident in an area at the right temporo-parietal junction also associated with a 'theory of mind' (ToM) function. ASD participants also failed to show modulation of left amygdala activity during imitation that was evident in the controls. This may have implications for understanding the imitation of emotional stimuli in ASD. Overall, we suggest that ASD is associated with altered patterns of brain activity during imitation, which could stem from poor integration between areas serving visual, motor, proprioceptive and emotional functions. Such poor integration is likely to adversely affect the development of ToM through imitation as well as other aspects of social cognitive function in ASD.

PMID:
16140346
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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