EEG evidence for mirror neuron dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders

Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005 Jul;24(2):190-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2005.01.014.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are largely characterized by deficits in imitation, pragmatic language, theory of mind, and empathy. Previous research has suggested that a dysfunctional mirror neuron system may explain the pathology observed in ASD. Because EEG oscillations in the mu frequency (8-13 Hz) over sensorimotor cortex are thought to reflect mirror neuron activity, one method for testing the integrity of this system is to measure mu responsiveness to actual and observed movement. It has been established that mu power is reduced (mu suppression) in typically developing individuals both when they perform actions and when they observe others performing actions, reflecting an observation/execution system which may play a critical role in the ability to understand and imitate others' behaviors. This study investigated whether individuals with ASD show a dysfunction in this system, given their behavioral impairments in understanding and responding appropriately to others' behaviors. Mu wave suppression was measured in ten high-functioning individuals with ASD and ten age- and gender-matched control subjects while watching videos of (1) a moving hand, (2) a bouncing ball, and (3) visual noise, or (4) moving their own hand. Control subjects showed significant mu suppression to both self and observed hand movement. The ASD group showed significant mu suppression to self-performed hand movements but not to observed hand movements. These results support the hypothesis of a dysfunctional mirror neuron system in high-functioning individuals with ASD.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Spectrum Analysis
  • Visual Perception / physiology