Neuroscientists Focus on Autism

Brain researchers are experimenting with a new approach to treating autism. It involves stimulating brain cells called mirror neurons. Those neurons are thought to allow people to imitate and empathize. But in people with autism, they don't work the way they're supposed to.

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Brain researchers are experimenting with a new approach to treating autism. It involves stimulating brain cells called mirror neurons. Those neurons are thought to allow people to imitate and empathize, but in people with autism, they don't work the way they're supposed to.

Over the weekend, researchers at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego discussed ways to solve that problem.

NPR's Jon Hamilton has more.

JON HAMILTON: Children with autism can learn to act more like other kids if they're taught roles for social behavior. Dr. Lindsay Oberman of Harvard University says that's useful, but hardly a cure.

Dr. LINDSAY OBERMAN (Researcher, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard University, Boston): I can teach a child with autism that every time they see somebody fall, that they're supposed to ask them, are you all right? But they don't feel that empathy. They don't understand it internally the same way that you or I do when we see somebody fall.

HAMILTON: Oberman says our internal understanding depends on mirror neurons. These neurons fire when we do something or when we see someone else do the same thing. The system helps us simulate in our own minds the experience someone else is having, whether it's falling down stairs or hearing bad news.

But people with autism have trouble with this sort of simulation. Many scientists believe that's because their mirror neuron system is impaired. So Oberman and other researchers have been pursuing a tantalizing idea.

Dr. OBERMAN: If we can get this system up and going, we can potentially improve that process of being able to match what they see out in the world to what they feel inside themselves.

HAMILTON: Oberman thought there should be some way to trigger mirror neurons, even in people with autism. So she came up with an experiment. She has people watch videos of a simple hand motion.

Dr. OBERMAN: It's the opening and closing of your hand, like you're using a puppet.

HAMILTON: Oberman knew that watching a stranger's hand didn't trigger the mirror neurons of people with autism. So she showed them videos of their own hands or the hands of a parent, and that worked.

Dr. OBERMAN: The mirror neuron system is there. It seems like it just needs the correct input to respond.

HAMILTON: Oberman says she hopes to strengthen the response using a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Dr. OBERMAN: The idea is that if the neurons are there, you can kind of give it a jump start, similar to a defibrillator on a heart.

HAMILTON: Harvard researchers have begun using the technique on adults with autism, but don't have results yet.

Other researchers at the meeting in San Diego have come up with their own ways to stimulate mirror neurons. A team led by Jamie Pineda of U.C. San Diego is teaching young people with autism to play a video game that features a race car. Participants used biofeedback to learn how to move the car using only their brains.

Professor JAIME PINEDA (Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego): By changing the magnitude of certain frequencies in their brain, they can make that car move around the race track.

HAMILTON: The frequencies they learn to generate stimulate their mirror neurons. Several dozen kids have participated in pilot studies so far, and Pineda says changes in brainwave patterns show that their mirror neurons are working better.

Dr. PINEDA: After training, they look more like typically developing children.

HAMILTON: Pineda says the research, though still in its early stages, has produced another promising result.

Dr. PINEDA: Parents have been telling us that after the training is completed, they see some positive changes in the behavior of the children. They - some of them become more social, for example, or others become better able to do certain things in school.

HAMILTON: Full-scale trials of both these approaches are getting under way, but results could be years off.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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