Richard G. Petty, MD

Autism and Mirror Neurons

On November 28th, I made some comments about the discovery of "mirror neurons" in the frontal cortex that enable us to imitate other people. I have just seen a most interesting report implicating these cells in autism. The paper was published in the journal Nature, but click here for a good summary.

Autism, an illness that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others and to mount appropriate responses to environmental cues, is part of a spectrum of developmental differences, which run all the way from people who are severely disabled to people who function at extremely high levels. In recent years there has been renewed interest in the apparently linked disorder, called Asperger’s Syndrome. There has been a lot of speculation that some well-known high achievers have a form of it. We are always loath to describe something as an "illness, " unless there are strong grounds for doing so: some people’s brains are just wired differently. So perhaps the best criterion for calling something an "illness," is whether it is causing suffering. I was once cussed out by someone whom I had treated for a manic illness. He was as happy as a clam and was not suffering in the slightest. But he was causing great suffering to his wife and young children. And to fellow motorists, as he drove his car at extremely high speed down the wrong side of the highway.

Researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles found that some children with autism had less brain activation in a region in the frontal lobes that is involved in understanding another person’s state of mind. The degree of activation of the ‘mirror neurons’ in this region correlated with measures of social impairment. The children with the lowest activation had the most severe social impairment.

I do not doubt the value of this neurological approach to autism, but it is important to recognize that it is only a part of the picture. We also need to respect the importance of other ways of looking at an individual. As an example, using the Four Quadrant model developed by the philosopher Ken Wilber, we also need to consider not just the objective neurological aspect, but also the subjective, social an cultural aspects of a person. And each of these perspectives is irreducible: we cannot explain culture by neurons or how your liver works by an appeal to cultural dynamics.

So although studies like this are valuable in that they show that there is a neurological association with autism, and it is not the result of, say, bad parenting, they do not tell us the whole story. And we must not allow these findings to blind us to the other domains when we are working on coping strategies or treatments.

"I loathe the expression "What makes him tick." It is the American mind, looking for simple and singular solution that uses the foolish expression. A person not only ticks, he also chimes and strikes the hour, falls and breaks and has to be put together again, and sometimes stops like an electric clock in a thunderstorm."

–James Thurber (American Writer, 1894-1961)

Technorati Tags:       More blogs about Mirror Neurons.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

logo logo logo logo logo logo