New Research Argues Against the Dysfunctional Mirror System Hypothesis of Autism

Scientists at New York University have disproved the connection between autism and the mirror neuron system in the brain.

Scientists have previously hypothesized that the mirror neuron system, thought to play a central role in social communications, is dysfunctional in patients with autism and the cause of the social difficulties experienced by many patients with autism. However, new research from New York University and several other research institutes reveals that the mirror neuron system actually responds normally in autistic patients.

The researchers tested the dysfunctional mirror neuron theory by asking patients with autism and a control group to observe and execute different hand movements while undergoing fMRI. Results of the scan revealed that the mirror system areas of autistic patients responded strongly during movement observation and “did so in a movement-selective manner such that different movements exhibited unique neural responses.” In addition, patients with autism “exhibited typical movement-selective adaptation (repetition suppression) when observing or executing the same movement repeatedly,” according to a Neuron paper on the study. The outcome of this study reveals that the mirror system responses of patients with autism are equal to those commonly reported in controls.

Writing in Neuron, the researchers conclude: “Movement selectivity is a defining characteristic of neurons involved in movement perception, including mirror neurons, and, as such, these findings argue against a mirror system dysfunction in autism.”

In addition, those involved in the study believe that the results will now allow autism researchers to focus in “more promising directions.”