Morphological differences in the mirror neuron system in Williams syndrome

Soc Neurosci. 2016;11(3):277-88. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2015.1070746. Epub 2015 Aug 18.


Williams syndrome (WS) is a genetic condition characterized by an overly gregarious personality, including high empathetic concern for others. Although seemingly disparate from the profile of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), both are associated with deficits in social communication/cognition. Notably, the mirror neuron system (MNS) has been implicated in social dysfunction for ASD; yet, the integrity of this network and its association with social functioning in WS remains unknown. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods were used to examine the structural integrity of the MNS of adults with WS versus typically developing (TD) individuals. The Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), a tool typically used to screen for social features of ASD, was also employed to assess the relationships between social functioning with the MNS morphology in WS participants. WS individuals showed reduced cortical surface area of MNS substrates yet relatively preserved cortical thickness as compared to TD adults. Increased cortical thickness of the inferior parietal lobule (IPL) was associated with increased deficits in social communication, social awareness, social cognition, and autistic mannerisms. However, social motivation was not related to anatomical features of the MNS. Our findings indicate that social deficits typical to both ASD and WS may be attributed to an aberrant MNS, whereas the unusual social drive marked in WS is subserved by substrates distinct from this network.

Keywords: Mirror neuron system; Social cognition; Social communication; Social neuroscience; Williams syndrome.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / pathology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mirror Neurons / pathology*
  • Social Behavior Disorders / diagnostic imaging
  • Social Behavior Disorders / etiology
  • Williams Syndrome / diagnostic imaging
  • Williams Syndrome / pathology*
  • Williams Syndrome / psychology
  • Young Adult