How are mirror neurons linked to autism?

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In this blog we will discuss how mirror neurons are linked to autism.

We will also explore what the Broken Mirror theory of autism is, how it was developed, and what are the criticisms of this theory, as well as briefly touch upon what autism is. 

How are mirror neurons linked to autism?

The link between autism and Mirror neurons was illustrated by years of research on mirror neurons that lead to the development of what is known as the Broken Mirror theory of Autism by Vilayanur S Ramachandran and  Lindsay M Oberman.

These researchers, based on their findings, proposed that autism could be caused by a dysfunction in the Mirror Neuron System in the brain which leads to social and cognitive deficits.

What is the Broken Mirror theory of autism?

The ‘Broken mirror’ theory of autism proposed by Vilayanur S Ramachandran and  Lindsay M Oberman proposes the idea that the main symptoms of autism- social and cognitive deficits in functioning- are caused by a dysfunction of mirror neurons. 

The researchers proposed a hypothesis that a dysfunction of the mirror neuron system would explain the most obvious symptoms of autism which is the lack of social skills and other systems such as empathy and poor imitation etc based on scientific understanding that these social behaviours are often learned through mirroring.

Though there was another group of researchers in Scotland that proposed the same idea, it was the group led by Vilayanur S Ramachandran and  Lindsay M Oberman who presented the first experimental evidence.

In their research, they used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to demonstrate their hypothesis without having to insert electrodes into the brain of individuals with autism. 

Instead they used this device to observe neural activity in the brain of children with autism by observing and measuring MU waves which is known to be blocked when humans are watching someone else perform an action (Ramachandran & Oberman, 2006)

The researchers hypothesised that the mu-wave suppression might provide an insight into mirror neuron activity of “high-functioning” children with autism who needed low levels of support. 

They chose this particular group because they wanted to make sure that issues related to attention or cognitive understanding of instructions were not factors that could affect the experiment.

The results of the study found that the EEG reading did not display any indication that there was Mu wave suppression when the participant watched other individuals perform similar actions as them.

The researchers concluded that there seems to be a mirror neuron system dysfunctioning in children with autism. To back their study, the lab group also conducted another series of studies in more systematic ways with participants in similar high-functioning groups of children with autism. 

The results of these studies also presented the same evidence of the lack of Mu waves suppression and this was also backed by later researchers who used different techniques to monitor neural activity of mirror neurons.

How does the Mirror Neuron Theory implicate treatment and research?

When the possible link of the Mirror neuron system with autism was put across, the researchers and experts of the field indicated that this could open up new avenues for diagnosis and treatment.

The researchers of this theory put forward the idea that Physicians could use the lack of mu wave as a criteria for diagnosis starting from early infancy so that treatment can be availed for quickly.

The experts and researchers also put forward the idea that biofeedback can be used to alleviate the symptoms of autism by helping this child learn how to suppress mu waves- though by trial and error. 

The also suggested the possibility that doctors can work on correcting neurochemical imbalances that lead to the dysfunction of the mirror neuron system as a way to treat individu ausl with autism- however more research will be required.

For all the suggestions with respect to treatment that was made by these researchers, there would be a huge avenue for research to back their claims, seek out intervention strategies, as well as the possibility of pharmacological treatments for autisms would have to be considered.

What are the criticisms of the Broken Mirror theory?

While this particular theory has garnered so much interest and backing, it must be mentioned that the theory has been faced with much criticism and research that finds inclusive evidence of their claims. 

The original theories and researchers themselves claimed that their findings cannot be generalised because of the fact that this particular theory or hypothesis does not explain other symptoms of autism such as repetitive movement, hypersensitive, and aversive behaviours. 

In recent research, there have been observations made that clearly challenge this particular theory. 

A paper published in 2010 found that individuals have no trouble understanding and imitating other individuals. The researchers found that people with autism did exhibit typical movement-selective adaptation which is a defining function of mirror neurons. 

This particular paper very publicly refuted the conception that autism is caused by mirror neurons and this was also substantiated by another study published in the same year. 

This study explained the mu wave suppression with 20 individuals with Autism Spectrum disorder and 20 control individuals who were made to either do hand movements, observe hand movements, or observe a moving dot. 

The results of the study indicated that individuals with ASD according to EEG readings exhibited stronger mu suppression when watching hand actions much like the control group which indicated that the mirror neuron system was intact and that there was no dysfunction. 

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions that involve challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. 

According to the Centre for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States and usually symptoms of the disorder appear at the age of 2-3 years old while some developmental delays are observed as easily as 18 months. 

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, there are not just one but many subtypes of the disorder which vary according to the variation in genetic and environmental factors.  It also has a distinct set of strengths and challenges for each person on the spectrum.

People with autism Spectrum disorder vary in the way they think, learn, and problem solves- some can be highly skilled as it is the case for people with asperger’s syndrome or severely challenged enough to be considered a disability and require intense support and care from other people while others do not. 

Several factors increase the risk of the development of autism such as genetics, environment, parental substance abuse, family history, maternal and paternal behavioural risk factors like smoking or drinking when pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

The disorder is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, and  mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.

What is the Diagnostic criteria of Autism?

Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder is as follows:

To meet diagnostic criteria for ASD an individual must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction and at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviours in different contexts.

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests and emotions; to failure to engage in social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction, from poor verbal and nonverbal communication; deficits in understanding and use of gestures; lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, from difficulties adjusting behaviour to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech 
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualised patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviour (e.g., extreme distress at small changes)
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Hyper- or hypo reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment 
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay.

Conclusion

Do mirror neurons affect autism?

The link between autism and Mirror neurons was illustrated by years of research on mirror neurons that lead to the development of what is known as the Broken Mirror theory of Autism by Vilayanur S Ramachandran and  Lindsay M Oberman.

These researchers, based on their findings, proposed that autism could be caused by a dysfunction in the Mirror Neuron System in the brain which leads to social and cognitive deficits.

What is autism caused by?

There is no conclusive evidence as to pinning the cause of autism to only one factor, but it is generally understood in the field of science, that autism is linked to brain abnormalities. 

Can autistic kids mimic?

Yes, children with autism can mimic however, in varying degrees and it has been observed that their ability to mimic others also predicts their language outcomes and other areas of development.

Can neuroplasticity help autism?

Research finds that neurofeedback in neuroplasticity techniques can be used for children with ASD to lessen aggressive behaviours, communicate better, and maintain attention. 

What is the correct term for high functioning autism?

Because the term “high fucnting” is met with controversy because of the fact that it is not a diagnosis and it is also viewed as misleading and ableist- discriminates based on ability- as it assumes that individual with autism who are not high-functioning are “low-functioning” the more appropriate term can be “low-support” or Level-1 autism. 

What can I say instead of functioning labels?

You can replace the functioning labels with support labels. So instead of high functioning individuals with autism it becomes individuals with low support needs. 

References

Autism Linked To Mirror Neuron Dysfunction. Science Daily. 18th April, 2005. Retrieved on 7th February 2022. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/04/050411204511.htm

Ramachandran VS, Oberman LM. Broken mirrors: a theory of autism. Sci Am. 2006 Nov;295(5):62-9. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican1106-62. PMID: 17076085.

Fan YT, Decety J, Yang CY, Liu JL, Cheng Y. Unbroken mirror neurons in autism spectrum disorders. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010 Sep;51(9):981-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02269.x. Epub 2010 May 26. PMID: 20524939.

Dinstein I, Thomas C, Humphreys K, Minshew N, Behrmann M, Heeger DJ. Normal movement selectivity in autism. Neuron. 2010 May 13;66(3):461-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.034. PMID: 20471358; PMCID: PMC2872627.

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