UNBREAKING MIRRORS: RELATION BETWEEN AUTISM AND MIRROR NEURONS
ResumoIntroduction: Discovered in the 90s by Rizzolati and collaborators in the pre-motor cortex of Rhesus
monkeys, mirror neurons are a type of neuron that responds both during a practical and directed action
as in the observation of this same action being performed by another individual. Neurology says that
this system should not be considered as a separate and self-sufficient system, but as an intrinsic
mechanism of the various cortical areas, such as inferior frontal gyrus, temporal and parietal lobes and
cingulate cortex. Therefore, it allows immediate and unconscious understanding of the observed
activity, allowing even its reproduction. In this way, it is postulated that this neuronal type is directly
linked to the autism spectrum disorders. Objective: Analyze the autism by the premise of dysfunction of
the mirror neuron system. Materials and methods: Systematic review of current literature from the
PubMed database. Discussion: The ability of mirroring actions provided by the mirror neuron system
(MNS) is closely linked to the mechanisms of learning. This imitation can also be directly related to the
development of empathy, an affective response that allows the emotional processing, giving the ability
to sentimental approach to other people. Starting from these premises, these properties are directly
correlated to the autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which are difficulties in communication and social
interaction, restriction in understanding and mechanical and mental reproduction of new expressions or
feelings, as well as limitation in the perception of intent with who they relate. In order to prove this
correlation between the MNS and the ASD, comparative experiments were performed in patients with
diagnostic confirmation of autism and healthy patients. Exemplifying with the experiments of Schunke
et al. and Swoden et al., in the first instance, they have measured the reaction time to imitation of
simple, meaningless movements (lifting a finger, a dot or both). As a second experiment, subjects were
asked to answer as quickly as possible, to two sound stimuli of different tones (500 or 1000 Hz), and lift
the index finger or little finger according to each tone (pattern previously stipulated). The third test
blended visual and auditory stimuli so that images were reproduced as the first experiment, but the
answer should be given according to the sound stimulus. In all tests, the results proved no significant
variation between groups of healthy patients and autistic patients. It was noticed that there was
"interference effects" in the tests when visual and additives stimuli have been presented together, but
present in both groups. Conclusion: Since the emergence of the study of mirror neurons, these were
quickly linked to autism spectrum disorders by its deficit in order to, a priori, explain all the symptoms of
this disease. However, new standardized and reproducible studies have shown that the mirror neuron
system is fully active among the ASD patients. This correlation is consistent with the fact that autism is
much more complex than expected after the discovery of mirror neurons.
Schunke O et al. Mirror me: Imitative responses in adults with autism. Autism. 2015 Mar 13. pii:
Sowden S, Koehne S, Catmur C, Dziobek I, Bird G. Intact Automatic Imitation and Typical Spatial
Compatibility in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Challenging the Broken Mirror Theory. Autism Res.
Jun 26. doi: 10.1002/aur.1511.
Cattaneo L, Rizzolatti G. The Mirror Neuron System. Arch Neurol. 2009;66(5):557-560.
Buccino G, Binkofski F, Riggio L. The mirror neuron system and action recognition. Brain Lang.
Lameira A P, Gawryszewski L G, Pereira A J. Neurônios Espelho. Psicologia USP, 2006, 17(4),
Acharya S, Shukla S. Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. J Nat Sci Biol
Med. 2012 JulDec; 3(2): 118–124.
Vivanti G, Rogers SJ. Autism and the mirror neuron system: insights from learning and teaching.
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369: 20130184.