Broken mirrors: A theory of Autism

Scientific American: Broken Mirrors: A Theory of Autism

"Perhaps the most ingenious of the psychological theories is that of Uta Frith of University College London and Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, who posit that the main abnormality in autism is a deficit in the ability to construct a "theory of other minds." Frith and Baron-Cohen argue that specialized neural circuitry in the brain allows us to create sophisticated hypotheses about the inner workings of other people’s minds. These hypotheses, in turn, enable us to make useful predictions about others’ behavior .Obviously  this does not explain the why of autistic symptoms but only states those symptoms. A better theory would be to pinpoint the activity that happens in the minds of the autist  child. While studying the anterior cingulate cortex of awake human subjects, investigators found that certain neurons that typically fire in response to pain also fired when the person saw someone else in pain. Mirror neurons may also be involved in imitation, an ability that appears to exist in rudimentary form in the great apes but is most pronounced in humans. The propensity to imitate must be at least partly innate: Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington has shown that if you stick your tongue out at a newborn baby, the infant will do the same.
These findings provide compelling evidence that people with autism have dysfunctional mirror neuron systems. Scientists do not yet know which genetic and environmental risk factors can prevent the development of mirror neurons or alter their function, but many research groups are now actively pursuing the hypothesis because it predicts symptoms that are unique to autism."

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