New study settles how social understanding is performed by the brain

February 24, 2014

In a study to be published in Psychological Science, researchers from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen demonstrate that brain cells in what is called the mirror system help people make sense of the actions they see other people perform in everyday life.

Using magnetic stimulation to temporarily disrupt normal processing of the areas of the human brain involved in the production of actions of human participants, it is demonstrated that these areas are also involved in the understanding of actions. The study is the first to demonstrate a clear causal effect, whereas earlier studies primarily have looked at correlations, which are difficult to interpret.

One of the researchers, John Michael, explains the process:

"There has been a great deal of hype about the mirror system, and now we have performed an experiment that finally provides clear and straightforward evidence that the mirror system serves to help people make sense of others' actions," says John Michael.

Understanding autism and schizophrenia

The study shows that there are areas of the brain that are involved in the production of actions. And the researchers found evidence that these areas contribute to understanding others' actions. This means that the same areas are involved in producing actions and understanding others' actions. This helps us in everyday life, but it also holds great potential when trying to understand why people with autism and schizophrenia have difficulties with social interaction.

"Attaining knowledge of the processes underlying social understanding in people in general is an important part of the process of attaining knowledge of the underlying causes of the difficulties that some people diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia experience in sustaining social understanding. But it is important to emphasise that this is just one piece of the puzzle."

"The findings may be interesting to therapists and psychiatrists who work with patients with schizophrenia or autism, or even to educational researchers," adds John Michael.

Facts about the empirical basis

The participants (20 adults) came to the lab three times. They were given brain scans on the first visit. On the second and third, they received stimulation to their motor system and then performed a typical psychological task in which they watched brief videos of actors pantomiming actions (about 250 videos each time). After each video they had to choose a picture of an object that matched the pantomimed video. For example, a hammer was the correct answer for the video of an actor pretending to hammer.

This task was intended to gauge their understanding of the observed actions. The researchers found that the stimulation interfered with their performance of this task.

Innovative method

The researchers used an innovative technique for magnetically stimulating highly specific brain areas in order to temporarily disrupt normal processing in those areas. The reason for using this technique (called continuous theta-burst stimulation) in general is that it makes it possible to determine which brain areas perform which functions. For example, if you stimulate (and thus temporarily impair) area A, and the participants subsequently have difficulty with some specific task (task T), then you can infer that area A usually performs task T. The effect goes away after 20 minutes, so this is a harmless and widely applicable way to identify which tasks are performed by which areas.

With continuous theta-burst stimulation, you can actually determine that the activation of A contributes as a cause to people performing T. This method thus promises to be of great use to neuroscientists in the coming years.
-end-
John Michael works for the transdisciplinary Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University. http://www.interactingminds.au.dk

In his work, he combines conceptual and experimental approaches to social interaction and social cognition.

Contact:
Tel.: (+45) 6073 9069
E-mail: johnmichaelaarhus@gmail.com

The article has been published recently in Psychological Science

Aarhus University

Related Autism Articles from Brightsurf:

Autism-cholesterol link
Study identifies genetic link between cholesterol alterations and autism.

National Autism Indicators Report: the connection between autism and financial hardship
A.J. Drexel Autism Institute released the 2020 National Autism Indicators Report highlighting the financial challenges facing households of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including higher levels of poverty, material hardship and medical expenses.

Autism risk estimated at 3 to 5% for children whose parents have a sibling with autism
Roughly 3 to 5% of children with an aunt or uncle with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can also be expected to have ASD, compared to about 1.5% of children in the general population, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Adulthood with autism
The independence that comes with growing up can be scary for any teenager, but for young adults with autism spectrum disorder and their caregivers, the transition from adolescence to adulthood can seem particularly daunting.

Brain protein mutation from child with autism causes autism-like behavioral change in mice
A de novo gene mutation that encodes a brain protein in a child with autism has been placed into the brains of mice.

Autism and theory of mind
Theory of mind, or the ability to represent other people's minds as distinct from one's own, can be difficult for people with autism.

Potential biomarker for autism
A study of young children with autism spectrum disorder published in JNeurosci reveals altered brain waves compared to typically developing children during a motor control task.

Autism often associated with multiple new mutations
Most autism cases are in families with no previous history of the disorder.

State laws requiring autism coverage by private insurers led to increases in autism care
A new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found that the enactment of state laws mandating coverage of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was followed by sizable increases in insurer-covered ASD care and associated spending.

Autism's gender patterns
Having one child with autism is a well-known risk factor for having another one with the same disorder, but whether and how a sibling's gender influences this risk has remained largely unknown.

Read More: Autism News and Autism Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.