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Brain Res. 2009 Jan 12;1248:141-8. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2008.10.077. Epub 2008 Nov 12.

Does Joe influence Fred's action? Not if Fred has autism spectrum disorder.

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Faculty of Kinesiology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. N.W. Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4.


It has been proposed that the deficits in social interaction seen in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) arise from problems in action perception stemming from a dysfunction of the mirror neuron system (MNS)--a neural network that becomes active during the performance and observation of action. A dysfunction of this system could have a cascading effect leading to deficits in social cognition because poor activation of the MNS during action observation may lead to an incomplete understanding of another person's actions, intentions and, ultimately, mental states. The present study tested the MNS dysfunction explanation by determining if people with ASD demonstrate a between-person inhibition of return (BP-IOR) effect. The BP-IOR effect, longer reaction times to targets presented at the location of another person's previous response relative to an unresponded-to location, has been hypothesized to be the result of the MNS co-representing the observed response and subsequently activating the mechanisms that cause IOR when individuals respond on their own (within-person IOR [WP-IOR]). Consistent with the MNS dysfunction hypothesis, participants with ASD did not demonstrate a BP-IOR effect in a condition in which they only observed the movement of the partner. The participants with ASD did demonstrate a WP-IOR effect suggesting that the mechanisms underlying IOR are intact in ASD. The contrast between the BP- and WP-IOR effects in the participants with ASD provides significant behavioural evidence for MNS dysfunction in ASD and has important implications for understanding this disorder.

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