Have you ever been in a situation where you see someone cry and you break out in a cry yourself ? Or maybe you see someone hysterically laugh and it’s so “contagious” that you start laughing. Well... that’s actually due to nerve cells that are in the brain known as “mirror” neurons.
In the 1990s, while conducting a study with primates, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma (led by G. Rizzolatti) realized that the brain of these primates functioned reflecting the actions of another and allowed them to identify not only their movements but also the intentions of the other. That is how the so-called mirror neurons were discovered. They observed how certain brain neurons were activated in the individual when he/she saw another individual perform an action and immediately repeated it. That discovery led them to believe that the motor system is far more complex than they imagined and its activation also depends on these mirror neurons.
Later, they went more in-depth with the research and found out that after 3 months we begin to develop these neurons – which is when the baby begins to imitate the behaviors, gestures, and movements taught by his parents or his close people. For example, if mom claps, the baby claps too. The baby already begins to adopt attitudes that they see in another as their own. Mirror neurons mimic what they observe and repeat what is observed, turning it into an
action of their own...It is a primitive response of our brain.
In this process of imitation through neurons, a direct relationship between mirror neurons, imitation and empathy is noticed. According to neuropsychological studies, mirror neurons activate an area of the brain that makes us associate or interact with certain people, according to what we see.
Digging a little deeper, it was concluded that the act of imitating is an example of the joint action between mirror neurons and memory. This joint action is required for memory to record and store information in the brain and then repeat it.
Mirror neurons and autism:
Subsequent studies showed that in autism there is a dysfunction of mirror neurons, which could be the explanation of some of the symptoms of autism in relation to social skills and their absence of empathy and imitation ability.
If this is the case, autism may be associated with the lack of learning that is based on imitation.
This deficiency of mirror neurons continues to be studied in autism and through different technologies and diminished activity of mirror neurons has been continuously found in the brains of people with autism. However, the same response was not obtained from the studied sample of people with autism with certain movements and stimuli.
This seems like bad news, but it’s far from it. Why? because all these findings, in different parts of the world and with different technologies, have opened a new chapter on the possible neurological reasons for autism, and on that new basis, studies continue to find adequate treatment.
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