Updated: Jun 8, 2020
The mirror mechanism and its potential role in ASD
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that occurs in children. It has been studied by neurologists and psychologists for many years, but the origins of this disorder remain controversial in the field of neuropsychiatry. 85% of autism is considered “idiopathic” which means the origin is unknown (the other percentage being able to be traced to genetic links). Some people believe that parental neglect (refrigerator parents) leads to these developmental delays while others suggest environmental factors and exposure of the child to other communities can lead to symptoms. This falls perfectly into the nature and nurture debate. Recently, a cognitive hypothesis has been suggested where children with ASD are unable to represent their own and other individuals’ mental states in their minds and as a result cannot predict behaviors. This is a human-specific hypothesis because the areas of the brain involved in language also have similar effects according to this theory.
With the recent developments of cognitive neuropsychology, a field that studies structure and function of the brain to understand psychological processes, it will become easier to approach this complex disorder and understand its origins. One study discovered what is known as a mirror mechanism. Mirror neurons were discovered in a species of monkey, the macaque, in the pre-motor cortex of the brain. These neurons reflect the translation of pre-existing motor neurons and can help to ‘mimic’ actions. If you watch someone throw a ball, for example, the same area in your brain activates too, as if you were throwing a ball. The mirror mechanism discovered shows that the motor cortex of human and non-human primate brains were constructed in an abstract manner. Multiple studies in infants confirmed the existence of such a mechanism and is responsible for infants understanding the purpose of any action they take.
In the case of ASD, muscle and reflex abnormalities are very common for infants that are 4-6 months old. Over time, many motor deficits endure in these individuals. Some motor deficits observed in ASD individuals include clumsiness and hyperactivity, for example. The motor coordination issues are associated with dysfunctions in the cerebellum. Some studies showed that children with ASD are unable to understand the goal of an action when they observe and execute that action. Joint attention is very difficult for children with ASD (when a caregiver points at something, children with ASD tend to be unaware of what pointing means). This could suggest that there is a deficit with their mirror mechanism or abnormal neural organization. These issues translate to emotion, imitation and other stereotypical symptoms of ASD individuals.
In conclusion, this mechanism can play a vital role in the social cognitive aspect of ASD in children. No concrete evidence has shown differences in the autism brain yet. It is not a sole mechanism, but it is a new approach to understand a complex disorder and over time, new angles can be added to confront the origins and hopefully rid this neuropsychological condition.