Mirror neuron dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders

J Clin Neurosci. 2010 Oct;17(10):1239-43. doi: 10.1016/j.jocn.2010.01.026. Epub 2010 Jul 2.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are developmental conditions characterized by deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and obsessive/stereotyped patterns of behaviour. Although there is no reliable neurophysiological marker associated with ASDs, dysfunction of the parieto-frontal mirror neuron system has been suggested as a disturbance linked to the disorder. Mirror neurons (MNs) are visuomotor neurons which discharge both when performing and observing a goal directed action. Research suggests MNs may have a role in imitation, empathy, theory of mind and language. Although the research base is small, evidence from functional MRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and an electroencephalographic component called the mu rhythm suggests MNs are dysfunctional in subjects with ASD. These deficits are more pronounced when ASD subjects complete tasks with social relevance, or that are emotional in nature. Promising research has identified that interventions targeting MN related functions such as imitation can improve social functioning in ASDs. Boosting the function of MNs may improve the prognosis of ASDs, and contribute to diagnostic clarity.

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / pathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Language
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology