Neurotopia

Mixing Memory brings up some excellent points regarding mirror neurons in primates, and Frontal Cortex follows up with his thoughts. To both of them I say “bravo, but your skepticism probably doesn’t go far enough”.

We give Rizzolatti et al too much credit with their conclusions. After all, they’ve only demonstrated the existence of mirror neurons in monkeys. Due to the obvious inherent difficulties associated with recording from human neurons in vivo, no one has yet (to my knowledge) published anything that demonstrates the existence of mirror neurons in people. Instead, we stick people in scanners and infer that they have mirror regions, or mirror neural systems, that are at least in part composed of mirror neurons. These regions are associated with language and imitation, but any evidence that mirror neurons are involved with either behavior in humans is circumstantial at best.

In fact, there is nothing in the human literature to suggest that mirror neurons are required for imitative behaviors. It is possible that population-based mirror function is much, much more efficient for this task than are individual mirror neurons, and indeed such a diffuse mirror system could function without any mirror neurons at all, at least in principle, as long as the same information is carried in parallel and not able to be generalized to any particular cell. Is this likely? I doubt it. Mirror activity in different brain regions is probably driven by populations of mirror neurons. So I will caveat my caveat by stating my personal opinion; mirror neurons likely exist in humans, and honestly I would be very surprised if they didn’t. However, certainty is the perfect barrier to learning, and if we remain convinced of their existence without hard evidence then we run the risk of creating faulty models.

So the underlying question remains: what do mirror neurons actually do? Are they merely a system for recognizing actions? Do they allow an organism to infer intent or mental state? Do they mediate imitation? Perhaps they represent a dynamic system; while their basest function may merely be an action recognition system, they might be periodically recruited to perform other functions such as mental state inference, imitative learning, and yes even learning language. Such a phenomenon would not be unheard of. For instance, prefrontal cortex is known to actively recruit the attentional capacities of the basal forebrain cholinergic system when pressed to perform cognitively demanding tasks.

With all that in mind, how do we study mirror neuron-like activity in humans? Primarily we rely on electroencephalography, or EEG, which records electrical fields through the placement of electrodes on the skull, and the dreaded fMRI, which has been dissected to death here on SEED. The advantages of EEG are that it actually measures electrical field potentials produced by populations of neurons in a very noninvasive fashion. The drawback is that spatial resolution is shit. fMRI allows for better spatial resolution but by using it, one runs the risk of having electrical signal decoupled from blood flow and thus not providing an accurate index of functional changes.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are a frequent target for investigating mirror functions in humans. Those with ASDs are thought to lack empathy, a theory of mind, and to be impaired in their ability to imitate and relate socially. Obviously ASD researchers see mirror neurons as the logical place to start, and with all the hype I can’t say I blame them. One group of ASD researchers decided to see if patterns of brain activity were altered in ASD patients. Specifically, they examined alterations of mu spectrum activity, which is known to be decreased in mirror neuron system brain areas upon the observation of biologically relevant motions. For example:

i-0435b7ff5831279a3b6bedd85dcddd56-mu suppression.gif

The three light gray bars represent mu activity from different scalp regions following the observation of a bouncing ball. The medium gray bars are activity from observing another person’s hand motion. The dark gray bars are observation of the subject’s own hand in motion. As we would expect, control subjects show suppression when observing another’s hand motion or observing their own hand in motion, while ASD subjects only show suppression when viewing the motion of their own hand.

Similarly, when using fMRI to study activation patterns in people asked to imitate the facial expressions of others, control subjects (a) show markedly more activation than do ASD subjects (b). (C) represents areas where the differences in activation were significantly greater in controls, mainly the pars opercularis. It should be pointed out that the pars opercularis is part of Broca’s Area.

i-8fecf60eddfe02315e7c2f1dae02a7ce-nn1611-F1.jpg

So what do we learn here? Admittedly, not much. We learn about the neural networks involved in mirror system activity, and the anatomical areas involved. But we aren’t studying mirror neurons themselves. Likewise, it is easy to be suckered into pointing at the activity patterns and involvement of language-oriented areas like the pars opercularis, and claim that mirror neurons are somehow involved with a slew of exotic hypotheses. Hell, they might even be correct! These hypotheses are very interesting and may drive some fascinating, satisfying research in the future, but we must remember that correlation is not causation, especially when evidence for the cause itself is lacking in humans. Even when the logic is sound, the argument can still be false if the premises do not comport with reality.

References

Dapretto M, Davies MS, Pfeifer JH, Scott AA, Sigman M, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M. Nat Neurosci. 2006 Jan;9(1):28-30. Epub 2005 Dec 4.

Oberman LM, Hubbard EM, McCleery JP, Altschuler EL, Ramachandran VS, Pineda JA. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005 Jul;24(2):190-8.

Oztop E, Kawato M, Arbib M. Neural Netw. 2006 Apr;19(3):254-71. Epub 2006 Apr 3.

Comments

  1. #1 sbr
    July 25, 2006

    for those of us stoopid enough not to know what a mirror neuron is, could you please explain? but use small words, my brain is already working overtime just to type this out.
    thanx.

  2. #2 Evil Monkey
    July 25, 2006

    Silly Baxi, that’s what the links at the beginning of the post are for ;)

  3. #3 sbr
    July 26, 2006

    see, i’m too stupid even to know that. thanks Evil Monkey! you’re the best!

  4. #4 presenceman
    July 28, 2006

    The critical issue is that the mirror neuron “theory” is a not a theory…
    Gallese and colleagues do not clarify how from mirror neurons it is possible to produce imitation, language and so on.
    An interesting new approach to this point is the theory of “presence” recently presented by Riva and Waterworth in the book From Communication to Presence: Cognition, Emotions and Culture towards the Ultimate Communicative Experience. Apparently the full book is downloadable from the above page in PDF format. So, have a look at it.
    Their main claim is that the role of mirror neurons is understandable only inside “a psychology of presence”: is presence that allows the control of agency and social interaction through the unconscious separation of both “internal” and “external”, and “self” and “other”.

  5. #5 J
    November 29, 2006

    It IS still necessary to confirm the existence of mirror-neurons in humans, but the evidence for them in primates is a strong indicator that they exist. I believe they will open a new area for scientific research- from looking at differences between ASD people, with obvious social defecits, to possible examination of gender differences in the functionality or quantity of those neurons (since autism spetrum disorders are often sex-biased, with approximately a 9:1 ratio of males:females with the condition (if I recall correctly), which in turn may have something to do with organizational effects of fetal testosterone- a topic researched in ASD subjects by Simon Baron-Cohen). Obviously, the technology does not exist to examine mirror neurons in detail, but it is a fascinating area.

  6. #6 Zarinah
    February 15, 2007

    Just to comment on the point made about no evidence for mirror neurones.. Hutchinson et al., 1999 report in Nature Neuroscience, recordings from human anterior cingulate whilst receiving and observing painful stimuli. I know these are not motor neurones, but this is clear evidence for the mirror property in single cells in the human brain.

  7. #7 MCF
    November 10, 2007

    Could mirror neuron abnormalities be a cause of bipolar/schizo-affective disorders?

    Recent articles in mainsteam media have discussed deficits in mirror neuron activity as a likely factor in autism-spectrum problems.

    Conversely, could a surplus of mirror neuron activity lead to the onset of bipolar/schizo-affective episodes?

    A member of our family has annual manic/schizo-affective episodes (correlated with change of season).

    Each episode typically begins with a hyper-empathetic response to others’ qualities and experiences.

    As boundaries between self and the universe dissolve, sharp mood swings follow. He describes an elation based on a belief/certainty of his ability to read thoughts and for his thoughts to influence others. And then he despairs given a sense of complete identification with the suffering of others, and of vulnerability to their bad thoughts.

    Could such symptoms result from the lack of hormones or other biochemical suppressors that normally regulate mirror neuron activity?

    And are researchers or pharmaceutical companies now considering this scenario — and potential treatments based upon it — as an opportunity to ease the suffering of those afflicted with bipolar and bipolar-linked schizophrenic disorders?

    Look forward to hearing…

  8. #8 battery
    October 7, 2008

    pharmaceutical companies now considering this scenario — and potential treatments based upon it — as an opportunity to ease the suffering of those afflicted with bipolar and bipolar-linked schizophrenic disorders?

  9. #9 pagerank sorgulama
    November 11, 2008

    emegine saglik tesekkur ederim super

  10. #10 htmlmekani
    November 11, 2008

    thanks. sueper

  11. #11 bradi pavel
    December 17, 2008

    I think Rizzolatti and other have not mesured mirror neurons in 1996

  12. #12 tr.gg
    January 5, 2009

    emegine saglik super olmus

  13. #13 html kod
    May 19, 2009

    oo cok güzel

  14. #14 oktay usta
    October 26, 2010

    thanks. emeğine sağlık süper olmuş way adamım eline koluna saglık beyaw