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      Intact imitation of emotional facial actions in autism spectrum conditions

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          Abstract

          It has been proposed that there is a core impairment in autism spectrum conditions (ASC) to the mirror neuron system (MNS): If observed actions cannot be mapped onto the motor commands required for performance, higher order sociocognitive functions that involve understanding another person's perspective, such as theory of mind, may be impaired. However, evidence of MNS impairment in ASC is mixed. The present study used an ‘automatic imitation’ paradigm to assess MNS functioning in adults with ASC and matched controls, when observing emotional facial actions. Participants performed a pre-specified angry or surprised facial action in response to observed angry or surprised facial actions, and the speed of their action was measured with motion tracking equipment. Both the ASC and control groups demonstrated automatic imitation of the facial actions, such that responding was faster when they acted with the same emotional expression that they had observed. There was no difference between the two groups in the magnitude of the effect. These findings suggest that previous apparent demonstrations of impairments to the MNS in ASC may be driven by a lack of visual attention to the stimuli or motor sequencing impairments, and therefore that there is, in fact, no MNS impairment in ASC. We discuss these findings with reference to the literature on MNS functioning and imitation in ASC, as well as theories of the role of the MNS in sociocognitive functioning in typical development.

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          Most cited references37

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          Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading.

          V Gallese (1998)
          A new class of visuomotor neuron has been recently discovered in the monkey's premotor cortex: mirror neurons. These neurons respond both when a particular action is performed by the recorded monkey and when the same action, performed by another individual, is observed. Mirror neurons appear to form a cortical system matching observation and execution of goal-related motor actions. Experimental evidence suggests that a similar matching system also exists in humans. What might be the functional role of this matching system? One possible function is to enable an organism to detect certain mental states of observed conspecifics. This function might be part of, or a precursor to, a more general mind-reading ability. Two different accounts of mind-reading have been suggested. According to `theory theory', mental states are represented as inferred posits of a naive theory. According to `simulation theory', other people's mental states are represented by adopting their perspective: by tracking or matching their states with resonant states of one's own. The activity of mirror neurons, and the fact that observers undergo motor facilitation in the same muscular groups as those utilized by target agents, are findings that accord well with simulation theory but would not be predicted by theory theory.
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            Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism.

            Manifestations of core social deficits in autism are more pronounced in everyday settings than in explicit experimental tasks. To bring experimental measures in line with clinical observation, we report a novel method of quantifying atypical strategies of social monitoring in a setting that simulates the demands of daily experience. Enhanced ecological validity was intended to maximize between-group effect sizes and assess the predictive utility of experimental variables relative to outcome measures of social competence. While viewing social scenes, eye-tracking technology measured visual fixations in 15 cognitively able males with autism and 15 age-, sex-, and verbal IQ-matched control subjects. We reliably coded fixations on 4 regions: mouth, eyes, body, and objects. Statistical analyses compared fixation time on regions of interest between groups and correlation of fixation time with outcome measures of social competence (ie, standardized measures of daily social adjustment and degree of autistic social symptoms). Significant between-group differences were obtained for all 4 regions. The best predictor of autism was reduced eye region fixation time. Fixation on mouths and objects was significantly correlated with social functioning: increased focus on mouths predicted improved social adjustment and less autistic social impairment, whereas more time on objects predicted the opposite relationship. When viewing naturalistic social situations, individuals with autism demonstrate abnormal patterns of social visual pursuit consistent with reduced salience of eyes and increased salience of mouths, bodies, and objects. Fixation times on mouths and objects but not on eyes are strong predictors of degree of social competence.
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              When the social mirror breaks: deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism.

              Humans, infants and adults alike, automatically mimic a variety of behaviors. Such mimicry facilitates social functioning, including establishment of interpersonal rapport and understanding of other minds. This fundamental social process may thus be impaired in disorders such as autism characterized by socio-emotional and communicative deficits. We examined automatic and voluntary mimicry of emotional facial expression among adolescents and adults with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and a typical sample matched on age, gender and verbal intelligence. Participants viewed pictures of happy and angry expressions while the activity over their cheek and brow muscle region was monitored with electromyography (EMG). ASD participants did not automatically mimic facial expressions whereas the typically developing participants did. However, both groups showed evidence of successful voluntary mimicry. The data suggest that autism is associated with an impairment of a basic automatic social-emotion process. Results have implications for understanding typical and atypical social cognition.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Neuropsychologia
                Neuropsychologia
                Neuropsychologia
                Pergamon Press
                0028-3932
                1873-3514
                September 2010
                September 2010
                : 48
                : 11-3
                : 3291-3297
                Affiliations
                [a ]Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Institute of Neurology, University College London, 12 Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG, United Kingdom
                [b ]Cognitive, Perceptual, and Brain Sciences, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, United Kingdom
                [c ]Division of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX, United Kingdom
                Author notes
                [* ]Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 0 20 7833 7485. c.press@ 123456fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk
                Article
                NSY3753
                10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.07.012
                3221037
                20638398
                1596fb14-4b80-4d66-875d-71097a70fd89
                © 2010 Elsevier Ltd.

                This document may be redistributed and reused, subject to certain conditions.

                History
                : 26 January 2010
                : 22 May 2010
                : 8 July 2010
                Categories
                Article

                Neurology
                imitation,autism spectrum conditions,mirror neuron,mirror system
                Neurology
                imitation, autism spectrum conditions, mirror neuron, mirror system

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