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The mirror neuron system is a brain circuit that enables us to better understand and anticipate the actions of others. These circuits activate in similar ways when we perform actions or watch other people perform the same actions.
Now, a new study published in Biological Psychiatry reports that the mirror system in individuals with autism is not actually broken, but simply delayed.
Dr. Christian Keysers, lead author on the project, detailed their findings, "While most of us have their strongest mirror activity while they are young, autistic individuals seem to have a weak mirror system in their youth, but their mirror activity increases with age, is normal by about age 30 and unusually high thereafter."
This increase in function of mirror neuron systems may be related to increased capacity for social function or responsiveness to rehabilitative treatments among individuals with autism.
"The finding of late developing circuit functions could be very important. One wonders whether the recent breakthroughs in the genetics of autism could help to identify causes for the developmental delays. This type of bridge might help to identify novel treatment mechanisms for autism," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.
One of the next steps in this line of research will be for researchers to examine how individuals with autism accomplish this improvement over time, and how therapeutic interventions targeting the same mechanism can help to support this important process.
The article is "Age-Related Increase in Inferior Frontal Gyrus Activity and Social Functioning in Autism Spectrum Disorder" by Jojanneke A. Bastiaansen, Marc Thioux, Luca Nanetti, Christiaan van der Gaag, Cees Ketelaars, Ruud Minderaa, and Christian Keysers. Bastiaansen, Thioux, Nanetti, and Keysers are affiliated with the Social Brain Laboratory, Department of Neuroscience, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. Bastiaansen and Ketelaars are affiliated with Autism Team North Netherlands, Lentis, Groningen, The Netherlands. Thioux and Keysers are also with the Social Brain Laboratory, Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. van der Gaag and Minderaa are affiliated with Department of Psychiatry, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 69, Number 9 (May 1, 2011), published by Elsevier.
The authors' disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.
John H. Krystal, M.D. is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.
Full text of the article mentioned above is available upon request. Contact Chris J. Pfister at firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain a copy or to schedule an interview.