Anatomical differences in the mirror neuron system and social cognition network in autism

Cereb Cortex. 2006 Sep;16(9):1276-82. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhj069. Epub 2005 Nov 23.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with impaired social and emotional skills, the anatomical substrate of which is still unknown. In this study, we compared a group of 14 high-functioning ASD adults with a group of controls matched for sex, age, intelligence quotient, and handedness. We used an automated technique of analysis that accurately measures the thickness of the cerebral cortex and generates cross-subject statistics in a coordinate system based on cortical anatomy. We found local decreases of gray matter in the ASD group in areas belonging to the mirror neuron system (MNS), argued to be the basis of empathic behavior. Cortical thinning of the MNS was correlated with ASD symptom severity. Cortical thinning was also observed in areas involved in emotion recognition and social cognition. These findings suggest that the social and emotional deficits characteristic of autism may reflect abnormal thinning of the MNS and the broader network of cortical areas subserving social cognition.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology*
  • Cognition*
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / pathology*
  • Neural Pathways / pathology*
  • Neurons / pathology*
  • Social Perception*