Friday, September 02, 2011
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Scientists have identified specialized brain cells called mirror neurons that may play a role in empathy, socializing and addiction.
The September issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter reviews current knowledge of mirror neurons which were identified by accident nearly two decades ago. Researchers were studying brain activities in monkeys. They found that the same neurons fired up when a monkey reached for its own food as well as when a monkey watched another monkey perform the same action.
In the years since, brain imaging studies have demonstrated the presence and probable locations of mirror neurons in the human brain. It is thought that the mirror neurons allow people to adopt another person's point of view and interpret the person's intentions.
Researchers have looked at what may occur when mirror neurons don't function as expected. Of particular interest is autism, a condition where people have difficulties with social interactions. Studies have shown that people with severe symptoms of autism have less active mirror neuron systems.
To counter the lower mirror neuron activity, therapists have used imitative behavior therapy with autistic children. The therapist imitates the actions of the autistic child to encourage social engagement. Results of this approach have been encouraging.
Mirror neurons may be a reason that stopping addictions — to tobacco, alcohol or drugs — can be so difficult. Researchers have looked at brain images generated while a smoker watched videos of a person smoking or opening a package of cigarettes. Smokers also watched videos of others drinking soda or opening cans of soda. The brain images showed higher mirror neuron activity with the smoking-related video.
The scientific community isn't in agreement over what mirror neurons do or even if they actually exist, not surprising given this complex aspect of the brain function. Research continues on the many questions to be answered about how mirror neurons might relate to learning, emotional processing and empathy.
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