Mirror neurons and autism

Neuroni specchio e autismo

R. Keller1, S. Bugiani2, P. Fantin2, E. Pirfo2

1 Ambulatorio disturbi pervasivi dello sviluppo per l'età adulta, 2 Dipartimento di salute mentale "G. Maccacaro", ASL TO 2


Dysfunctions affecting social interaction typical of autism still play a large research topic. In recent years was developed a theory that explains autism in new terms compared to previous theories based on theory of mind. This new theory is called the “broken mirror theory”.


According to this view, autism-related disorders might be caused by a hypoactivity of mirror neurons, a neuronal system that is activated when an action is performed by a person, and when the subject observes the same action done by a conspecific. These neurons are one of the key mechanisms for what concerns social interactions, as it allows an individual to embody in himself the mental states of those who have faced as they were their own. According to the “broken mirror theory”, autistic patients would not be able to embody in themselves others’ mental states (intentions, beliefs, expectations, etc.) and this would be due to a dysfunction related to mirror neurons. Even if much evidence supports this theory, however, there is also a large number of studies demostrating that the hypoactivity of the mirror system would be found only in certain circumstances and not in other.


There are many implications of these findings. It has been shown that in imitation tasks which do not require an explicit imitative behavior, there was a hypoactivity of the autistic mirror system. However, this does not occur when the subject is explicitly asked to imitate an observed movement. These patients also have difficulties for certain types of actions (e.g., actions without a goal), but show a normal behavior with others (e.g., direct action directed to a goal). Moreover, the deficits associated with the mirror system does not stop at simple task imitation. Autistic subjects, in fact, prove to have great difficulty in understanding the others’ intentions. Indeed, they seem to have no impairment regarding the goal of the action, or rather the “what” of the action. What they could not understand is the general intention of the model, or rather “why” this action is performed.


Autistic subjects, for those problems of embodiment of the mental states of others, which are possible only thanks to mirror neurons, have many difficulties in reading the emotional states of others.

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