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Biol Psychiatry. 2011 May 1;69(9):832-8. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.11.007. Epub 2011 Feb 18.

Age-related increase in inferior frontal gyrus activity and social functioning in autism spectrum disorder.

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Social Brain Laboratory, Department of Neuroscience, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, the Netherlands.



Hypoactivation of the inferior frontal gyrus during the perception of facial expressions has been interpreted as evidence for a deficit of the mirror neuron system in children with autism. We examined whether this dysfunction persists in adulthood, and how brain activity in the mirror neuron system relates to social functioning outside the laboratory.


Twenty-one adult males with autism spectrum disorders and 21 typically developing subjects matched for age, sex, and IQ were scanned in three conditions: observing short movies showing facial expressions, performing a facial movement, and experiencing a disgusting taste. Symptom severity and level of social adjustment were measured with the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and the Social Functioning Scale.


Inferior frontal gyrus activity during the observation of facial expressions increased with age in subjects with autism, but not in control subjects. The age-related increase in activity was associated with changes in gaze behavior and improvements in social functioning. These age-related neurocognitive improvements were not found in a group of individuals with schizophrenia, who had comparable levels of social functioning.


The results of this cross-sectional study suggest that mirror neuron system activity augments with age in autism and that this is accompanied by changes in gaze behavior and improved social functioning. It is the first demonstration of an age-related neurocognitive improvement in autism. Increased motor simulation may contribute to the amelioration in social functioning documented in adolescence and adulthood. This finding should encourage the development of new therapeutic interventions directed at emotion simulation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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