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A Combined fMRI-TMS Study on the Role of the Mirror Neuron System in Social Cognition: Moving Beyond Correlational Evidence

Los Angeles
State/Province Full: 
United States

The mirror neuron system (MNS) is one of the neural systems in the brain involved in processing information that allows us to readily understand others' actions, intentions, and emotions. Recent studies have suggested dysfunction in the MNS may underlie the social impairments observed in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, the role of the MNS in social cognition is not yet conclusive. The aim of the proposed research is to address this fundamental issue by testing the relationship between brain activity and behavior using a combination of functional brain imaging (fMRI) and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS). rTMS delivers a non-harmful magnetic pulse that causes a transient (reversible) artificial disruption of normal brain activity and can target specific brain systems. In this study rTMS will be used to disrupt the function of selected parts of the MNS so as to provide information on whether activity in the MNS is necessary for successful emotion recognition in high-functioning individuals with ASD in comparison with neurotypical individuals. What this means for people with autism: The study will provide insight into the biological mechanisms and brain systems that underlie autism spectrum disorders. It will address the important issue whether the functioning of the NMS system underlies the ability to automatically ‘read' others' minds and emotional recognition. This rigorous evaluation of the neural mechanisms associated with emotion understanding in the normal and autistic brain is a critical first step toward the design and implementation of interventions aimed at mitigating the significant impairments observed in autism in the social domain.