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Neuropsychologia. 2008 Mar 7;46(4):1060-8. Epub 2007 Nov 9.

Movement interference in autism-spectrum disorder.

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  • 1Faculty of Life Sciences, Moffat Building, The University of Manchester, P.O. Box 88, Sackville Street, Manchester M60 1QD, UK.


Movement interference occurs when concurrently observing and executing incompatible actions and is believed to be due to co-activation of conflicting populations of mirror neurons. It has also been suggested that mirror neurons contribute towards the imitation of observed actions. However, the exact neural substrate of imitation may depend on task demands: a processing route for goal-directed meaningful actions may be distinct from one for non-goal-directed actions. A more controversial role proposed for these neurons is in theory of mind processing, along with the subsequent suggestion that impairment in the mirror neuron circuit can contribute to autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) where individuals have theory of mind deficits. We have therefore examined movement interference in nine ASD participants and nine matched controls while performing actions congruent and incongruent with observed meaningless arm movements. We hypothesised that if the mirror neuron system was impaired, reduced interference should be observed in the ASD group. However, control and ASD participants demonstrated an equivalent interference effect in an interpersonal condition, with greater movement variability in the incongruent compared to the congruent condition. A component of movement interference which is independent of congruency did differ between groups: ASD participants made generally more variable movements for the interpersonal task than for biological dot-motion task, while the reverse was true for the control participants. We interpret these results as evidence that the ASD participant group either rely to a greater extent on the goal-directed imitation pathway, supporting claims that they have a specific deficit of the non-goal-directed imitation pathway, or exhibit reduced visuomotor integration.

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