Emerging research implicates a particular brain system for the social deficits commonly found in autism.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterized by impaired social functioning. Researchers have now, through use of transcranial magnetic stimulation, gained knowledge on how the “mirror neuron” system is linked to impairments found in autism.
The mirror neuron system is a brain circuit that is activated when we watch other people, and allows our brains to represent the actions of others, influencing our ability to learn new tasks and to understand the intentions and experiences of other people.
This mirror neuron system is impaired in individuals with ASD and a better understanding of the neurobiology of this system could facilitate the development of new approaches for treatment and management of ASD.
In the new study, Peter Enticott, Ph.D., and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to stimulate the brains of individuals with ASD and healthy individuals while they observed different hand gestures. This allowed the researchers to measure the activity of each individual’s mirror neuron system with millisecond precision in response to each observed action.
They found that the individuals with ASD showed a blunted brain response to stimulation of the motor cortex when viewing a transitive hand gesture.
In other words, the mirror neuron system in the ASD individuals became less activated when watching the gestures, compared to the healthy group. In addition, among people with ASD, less mirror neuron activity was associated with greater social impairments.
This finding adds to the evidence that deficits in mirror neuron system functioning contribute to the social deficits in ASD.
Researchers also believe this finding directly links a specific type of brain dysfunction in people with autism spectrum disorder to a specific symptom.
This is important because “we do not have a substantial understanding of the brain basis of autism spectrum disorder, or a validated biomedical treatment for the disorder,” said Enticott.
“If we can develop a substantial understanding of the biology of specific symptoms, this will allow us to develop treatments targeted specifically to the symptoms.”
“This study is an example of the effort to break down the component problems associated with autism spectrum disorder and to map these problems on to particular brain circuits,” commented Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry.
Enticott added, “We are currently investigating whether non-invasive brain stimulation can be used to improve mirror neuron activity in autism spectrum disorder, which would have substantial potential therapeutic implications.”