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Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders


To examine mirror neuron abnormalities in autism, high-functioning children with autism and matched controls underwent fMRI while imitating and observing emotional expressions. Although both groups performed the tasks equally well, children with autism showed no mirror neuron activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis). Notably, activity in this area was inversely related to symptom severity in the social domain, suggesting that a dysfunctional 'mirror neuron system' may underlie the social deficits observed in autism.

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Figure 1: Reliable activity during imitation of emotional expressions.
Figure 2: Mirror neuron system activity during observation of emotional expressions.
Figure 3: Mirror neuron system activity and symptom severity.

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Support for this work was provided by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P01 HD035470). The authors thank the Brain Mapping Medical Research Organization, the Brain Mapping Support Foundation, the Pierson-Lovelace Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation, the Tamkin Foundation, the Jennifer Jones-Simon Foundation, the Capital Group Companies Charitable Foundation, the Robson Family, the William M. and Linda R. Dietel Philanthropic Fund at the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, the Northstar Fund and the National Center for Research Resources (grants RR12169, RR13642 and RR08655).

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Correspondence to Mirella Dapretto.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Fig. 1

Reliably greater activity in ASD children vs. typically developing children during imitation comprised right visual and left anterior parietal areas (thresholded at t > 1.83, P < 0.05, corrected for multiple comparisons at the cluster level). (PDF 64 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 2

Reliable signal increases during observation of facial emotional expressions in both typically developing (a) and ASD group (b) groups comprised the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala (thresholded at t > 1.83, P < 0.05, corrected for multiple comparisons at the cluster level; small volume correction for the amygdala). (PDF 77 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

Subject demographics for children participating in the fMRI study. (PDF 37 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Subject demographics for subset of children participating in both fMRI and behavioral eye-tracking Sessions. (PDF 38 kb)

Supplementary Table 3

Peaks of activity during imitation of emotional expressions (PDF 64 kb)

Supplementary Table 4

Peaks of activity during observation of emotional expressions (PDF 53 kb)

Supplementary Table 5

Negative correlations between activity during imitation of emotional expressions and subjects' scores on the social subscales of the ADOS and ADI (PDF 51 kb)

Supplementary Methods (PDF 113 kb)

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Dapretto, M., Davies, M., Pfeifer, J. et al. Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nat Neurosci 9, 28–30 (2006).

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