Most people learn new social skills by modeling what others do. But for those with autism, differences in one section of the brain could be inhibiting this ability to mimic behavior.
Researchers looked at a section of the brain known as the “mirror neuron” system for a new study published this month in the journal Biological Psychiatry. Typically, this area of the brain gets excited when people watch each other, allowing individuals to learn new skills from what they’ve observed.
However, the findings from the study suggest that this reaction is quite different for those with autism, a development that could help lead to new treatments.
Researchers observed the brain function of 34 individuals with autism and 36 without the developmental disorder while they watched videos showing various hand gestures. They found that the study participants with autism showed less activity in the mirror neuron system than the neurotypical group.
Moreover, the more difficulty those with autism reported having with social skills, the less brain activity they were likely to exhibit while watching the videos, researchers said.
The findings are significant, they said, because little is known about the biology of autism and how symptoms of the disorder manifest.
“If we can develop a substantial understanding of the biology of specific symptoms, this will allow us to develop treatments targeted specifically to the symptoms,” said Peter Enticott of Monash University in Australia who worked on the study.