The byzantine understanding of mirror neurons has steered researchers to stretch their way of thinking and strive urgently for more advances. Mirror neurons have been one of the greatest neural discoveries in current years. The Italian neurophysiologist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, is the brain behind this discovery and through his effort it facilitated the explanation of mirror neurons in primates and humans. Mirror neurons are special cells; they fire once a primate executes an action or when the primate observes alternative execution of an action. Within the mirror neurons, the observer has a replica of the behavior in their brain. After this replica is transcribed in the brain this enables the viewer to comprehend the doer’s movements. The replication shows the difference between mirror neurons and motor neurons in the body. Motor neurons fire when the person moves muscles, meaning that firing occurs when an independent action is performed. Mirror neurons on the other hand fire in response to the purpose of the action. In this paper, the discovery of mirror neurons, how they occur in human beings, and can they help understand autism will be summarized.
The discovery of these unique neurons were very unforeseen findings in the brain of macaque monkeys. As much as we would like to give credit to having knowledge about the existence of mirror neurons before hand, the original reports did not anticipate to look at mirror neurons. Mirror neurons were discovered by accident. Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his collaborators stumbled across a cluster of cells that fired when a monkey acted out a certain stimulus as well as when it observed another monkey act on the stimulus (Winerman, 2005). A very simple motor action like grasping a peanut and watching another monkey perform the same action is an example that the monkeys displayed a comparable pattern when they were presenting (Winerman, 2005). The slogan, “monkey see, monkey do,” comes into big play here. These clusters of cells that were found were called “mirror neurons.”
Mirroring the Human Body
With a prodigious discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys, researchers were fervent to look within the human anatomy for additional material (Winerman, 2005). They begin to request the findings among the monkeys to advance knowledge in humans and distinctively human behaviors. With that being said the scientists could not reuse data from the previous recording among the monkeys, instead Rizzolatti and Fadiga examined human muscle twitching in the hand for motor evoked potentials (Winerman, 2005). What the researchers observed was that the potentials from viewing an experimenter grasp and object matched the potentials that were verified when the participants actually grasped the object themselves. More research became fundamental and for scientist like Marco Iacoboni detected something totally different. Iacoboni discovered that when college students surveyed an experimenter making finger movements and when they actually made the finger movements themselves, activity in some of the same regions of the frontal cortex and parietal lobe as the others (Winerman, 2005).
Reflecting back to the opening statement, mirror neurons and they complicity can’t be described just by motor neurons. Even though motor neurons are important especially for location, mirror neurons raise more alarming questions. For example, how do we perceive others emotions and intentions? One way researchers went about observing this behavior was observing disgust in different methods. What they found was that both the individual emotional experience of disgust and watching another person exhibit signals of disgust stimulated the same regions of the brain known as the anterior insula (Winerman, 2005).
Breakthrough knowledge that the human body could possibly house a neuron mirror system in the brain was appealing among many. Researches knew this to be true because they found areas in the motor cortex becoming motivated when a person observed another do an action. Our physical actions offer maintenance to our motor cortex which goes to show that we too contain mirror neurons with similar tenacities as those found in the macaque monkey.
By definition autism is a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. Autism touches a variety of areas in the nervous system, from the cerebral cortex to the cerebellum and brainstem. One type of autism that’s progressive and extensive is called Autistic Spectrum Disorder. This specific disorder is an assorted syndrome and distresses many parts of development such as impairment in social skills, verbal and nonverbal communication, combined with restricted, and repetitive behaviors. In a specific thought out research plan, researchers revealed that typically developing children, when viewing persons face-to-face they have a propensity to mimic them in a mirror way but children with autism did not show this fondness. This impression distinctiveness is most likely due to a deficit of mirror mechanism coding other person’s movements on one’s own.
Beyond doubt, more compelling research of a deficit in mirror mechanism among individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder came from an fMRI study. High functioning children with autism and matched controls were scanned while imitating and observing emotional expressions. The results from the study considerably illustrated a more fragile activation in the inferior frontal gyrus in children with autism than in typically developing children. Summation of the data indicated that children with autism managed the actions done by others in a distinct manner than the typically developed children. Easiest way to interrupt the difference in the two was that children with the disorder had a deficiency in mirror mechanism. Rather refer to them as “broken mirror.”
- Rizzolatti, G., & Fabbri-Destro, M. (2009, September 18). Mirror neurons: From discovery to autism. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00221-009-2002-3
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