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Mirror Neurons, Oxytocin and Autism

What's the relationship between mirror neurons and oxytocin? Science isn't even clear yet on what mirror neurons do, but news from the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience sparks some intriguing ideas.

Mirror neurons seem to fire when we perform an action and also when we watch someone else perform it. Most studies have been done with monkeys: They map which neurons fire when the monkey grasped an apple, and saw the same neurons become active when the monkey watched someone else hold the apple.

According to the press release from the conference, several researchers presented brain imaging studies comparing mirror neuron activity between children with autism and those with normal functioning.

Jaime Pineda, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego, did studies showing that the mirror neuron system is well-developed by the time a child is seven years old. His UCSD colleague, Lindsay Oberman, used EEG to monitor mirror neuron activity in ASD kids. She found that the system did work to some extent, and she saw normal activation of the mirror neurons when the children watched videos of family members, but not of strangers.

She suggests that people with normal brain function are able to generalize that all people are "like me," and therefore to understand them and have empathy for them, while kids on the spectrum are not able to make that leap. From the press release:

This evidence for normal mirror neuron activity in autistic children may indicate that mirror system dysfunction in these cases reflects an impairment in identifying with and assigning personal significance to unfamiliar people and things, Oberman suggests. Whether deficits in relating to unfamiliar people that are characteristic of autism are the cause or the result of a dysfunctional mirror neuron system is unclear.

This leads back to the oxytocin system. Many researchers think that ASD is due to dysfunction in the oxytocin system -- something is wrong with the brain's ability to produce or respond to oxytocin in social situations. Oxytocin influences generosity, increases empathy, and alleviates some of the symptoms of autism.   

Maybe oxytocin is necessary for the mirror neurons to fire; maybe it causes them to fire in response to social cues. Or perhaps, because oxytocin and dopamine are involved in social memory -- keeping track of who my family and friends are -- it's possible that the problem is in the oxytocin system, and the lack of appropriate social memory is what's keeping the mirror neurons to trigger.

This is all speculation; none of the scientists is working on this. Because human studies are so slow, costly and laborious, it seems that it's very difficult for scientists across disciplines to connect their work.

For a more detailed discussion of the research on mirror neurons, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science has an excellent post. See Broken chains and faulty mirrors cause problems for autistic children.