A Crack in the Mirror Neuron Hypothesis of Autism

Brain cells thought to underlie our ability to understand one another work just fine in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to the authors of a controversial new study. Other researchers had proposed that these cells, called mirror neurons, malfunction in people with ASD, disrupting their ability to understand what someone else is experiencing. If the results hold up, researchers will need another way to explain the social deficits that characterize the disorder.

First identified in monkeys, mirror neurons fire when an animal performs particular movements but also when it sees another monkey or a person perform the same movement. Such neurons allow monkeys—and presumably humans—to learn actions by imitating others, and, some researchers believe, to understand other people and empathize with them. People on the autism spectrum struggle to understand what’s happening in other people’s minds, which makes it hard for them to connect socially. Some neuroscientists had proposed that mirror neuron deficits were at the root of their social problems.

Several groups had found evidence supporting the mirror neuron hypothesis; for example, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues reported in 2005 that children with ASD show reduced mirror neuron activity compared with healthy controls when they watch and imitate others making faces. But neuroscientists Ilan Dinstein and David Heeger of New York University and their colleagues considered the previous results in humans inconsistent and inconclusive and designed what they considered “a more in-depth test,” Dinstein says.

That test consisted of two types of experiments.

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