Action observation and imitation in autism spectrum disorders: an ALE meta-analysis of fMRI studies

Brain Imaging Behav. 2016 Dec;10(4):960-969. doi: 10.1007/s11682-015-9456-7.


Previous studies have shown that the mirror neuron system (MNS) plays an important role in action understanding. However, whether and how the MNS activity is different in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and typically developed (TD) individuals are still unclear. The current study used activation likelihood estimation to conduct a meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies that investigated action observation and imitation in ASD and TD individuals. Thirteen studies were selected, and the contrasts focused on the brain effects in ASD and TD participants and the differences between the two groups. The results showed that compared with TD individuals, ASD individuals exhibited stronger effects in the anterior inferior parietal lobule, a part of the putative human MNS. In addition, the ASD group demonstrated altered effects in the occipital cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and insula. These results suggest that ASD individuals demonstrate dysfunction of the MNS during action observation and imitation. Furthermore, brain regions involved in visual processing, executive function, and social cognitive function might also show dysfunction during action task performance.

Keywords: Action imitation; Action observation; Activation likelihood estimation; Autism spectrum disorders; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; The mirror neuron system.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnostic imaging
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Motion Perception / physiology*