Institution: The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
Abstract: Frequently explored in macaque monkeys, the mirror neuron system (MNS) has demonstrated much influence over the development of behavioral patterns of animals. Since its discovery in macaque monkeys, research about MNS has extended to the development of humans. Researchers have deduced that the cognitive functions of MNS are essential for daily learning and social interactions such as executing imitation, understanding the actions of others, and expressing empathy. Furthermore, recent research has revealed a potential correlation between the impairment of these MNS functions in individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As individuals with ASD progress into adulthood, deficiencies in the functions controlled by MNS become more apparent such as socialization and communication. When individuals with ASD perform activities that are regulated by MNS functions, the putative regions of the brain where these functions are localized reveal little to no activity. Additionally, the structural development of these putative regions in ASD individuals is atypical compared to persons without ASD. Particular studies have shown simultaneous activity of another neural system, known as the mentalizing system, with that of MNS in ASD individuals. The abnormal levels of crosstalk between the MNS and the mentalizing system appears to be a direction for further analysis in ASD individuals. This review will mainly explore the relationship between emergence of ASDs from the dysfunction of the individual’s MNS.
Keywords: macaque monkeys; mirror neuron system; autism spectrum disorder; mentalizing system