Project Detail
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Office of Autism Research Coordination (OARC) logo

The mirror neuron system in children with autism  

Mirror neurons are nerve cells that are activated when an individual observes an action being performed by someone else. These neurons are believed to be involved in cognitive abilities such as empathy and learning by imitation — skills that are often impaired in people with autism. Raphael Bernier at the University of Washington is exploring a potential link between mirror neuron dysfunction and autism, which could help elucidate how the disorder develops, and might provide a basis for early detection and intervention. Research has suggested that mirror neurons only fire when an individual observes an action with which he or she has experience, leading Bernier to hypothesize that the dysfunction of mirror neurons in individuals with autism is caused by a lack of experience with social interaction. Bernier's study involves an early intervention designed to increase cognitive and social skills in children with autism. The study includes three groups of children who completed a previous trial — those with autism who received the intervention, those with autism who didn't, and typically developing controls. Bernier uses electroencephalography to detect electrical activity associated with activated mirror neurons in the children while they observe and attempt to imitate a task. Comparing activation patterns among the three groups may indicate whether the intervention can help normalize mirror neuron function. To date, Bernier's team has examined neurophysiological activity in 28 children with autism and 26 typically developing children, and they have begun processing the electrophysiological data. In the remaining months of the study, they aim to collect data from the remaining children with autism as they complete their intervention trial and return to the University of Washington for follow up assessments. In addition, the social experience provided by the trial intervention might help improve mirror neuron function in children with autism. To test this, Bernier plans to perform similar comparisons of mirror neuron activity between children from the three groups while they watch an adult perform hand and facial movements. He also plans to test the effect of non-biological stimuli, such as the movement of a toy, which children with autism tend to prefer over social interaction. Project Status


Funder Simons Foundation
Fiscal Year Funding $59,078.28
Current Award Period 2008-2011
Project Number 89368
Principal Investigator Bernier, Raphael
Received ARRA Funding? No
Strategic Plan Question Question 4: Which Treatments And Interventions Will Help? (Treatments)
Subcategory Behavioral
Strategic Plan Objective Green dot: Objective has greater than or equal to the recommended funding. 4SF. Launch five randomized controlled trials of interventions including biological signatures and other measures to predict response, and monitor quality of life and functional outcomes, in each of the following groups:
  • Five trials in infants and toddlers by 2013. IACC Recommended Budget: $30,000,000 over 5 years.
  • Three randomized controlled trials of interventions for school-aged children and/or adolescents by 2013. IACC Recommended Budget: $18,000,000 over 5 years.
  • Three trials for adults by 2014. IACC Recommended Budget: $18,000,000 over 5 years.
Federal or Private? Private
Institution University of Washington
State/Country Washington
Web Link 1 The mirror neuron system in children with autism (External web link)
Web Link 2 No URL available.
Web Link 3 No URL available.
History/Related Projects The mirror neuron system in children with autism | $118,156.48 | 2009 | 89368
The mirror neuron system in children with autism | $118,156.48 | 2008 | Project number unavailable
The mirror neuron system in children with autism | $29,539.16 | 2011 | 89368