Mirror Neuron Systems (MNS) may throw new light on psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and psychopathy, Perminder Sachdev, Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the University of New South Wales, Australia, said on Sunday.
Thus, Prof. Sachdev said a child with autism failing to develop social understanding and behaviour may be in part because of a paucity of mirror neurons in the brain. He added that early intervention and exposure to appropriate social stimulation may redress the balance. Conditions like autism and dyslexia which result in poor social skills or even stroke rehabilitation might benefit a lot from research on MNS.
The brain possesses a lot of plasticity during the developing years and there is scope for intervention. “We might just have to learn how to activate the ‘learning through imitation’ mechanism which is probably dysfunctional in some people,” he said.
In schizophrenia, on the other hand, there may be an excess of mirror neurons leading to a failure to discriminate one’s own thoughts, feelings and emotions from those of other people.
Delivering the 23rd K. Gopalakrishna Oration in Chennai on the subject, “enthralling and mysterious workings of mirror neurons” in our brains, Prof. Sachdev defined MNS as neuronal systems that go beyond their specialisation (for example sensory and motor) to develop capabilities to take part in other neuronal functions.
They have been studied in a pioneering way by Ritzolatti and his group in Parma, Italy, in primate experiments. He had demonstrated how primates can show brain activity in neuronal systems other than those stimulated.
For example, when the primate witnesses a researcher reaching out for an object, which the researcher then goes on to hide behind a screen, the reaction of the primate brain to the researcher reaching behind the screen, for the object that it can no longer see, is identical to when it can see the object. On the other hand when the primate knows that the object is no longer behind the screen, then the reaction is quite different.
Attributing these reactions of the primate to MNS, Prof. Sachdev outlined pathbreaking work from around the world that had demonstrated the possibility of MNS being present in human brains, in areas critical to emotion such as the amygdala, the cingulate and the insula.
He pointed out that the functional MRI (fMRI) image of a person reaching out for a cup of coffee which is full (i.e. with intent to drink) is qualitatively different from the image taken when the person was reaching out for an empty cup (i.e. with intent to clear). He explained that MNS can be developed with repeated exposure and training; alluding to how couples who spend many years together start resembling one another, due to modelling of facial expression.
The programme was organised by Chatnath Trust and the K Gopalakrishna Department of Neurology, The Institute of Neurological Sciences, Voluntary Health Services Hospital. Welcoming the audience Gayathri Sriram, Director, UCAL Group, outlined the vision and philanthropy of K. Gopalakrishna. C.V. Karthik Narayanan, Director, Union Company Motors (P) Ltd., presented a plaque and traditional ponnadai to Prof. Sachdev.
E.S. Krishnamoorthy, Secretary, VHS, and Director, The Institute of Neurological Sciences, led the lively question and answer session that followed, in which diverse issues such as the growing prevalence of neuropsychiatric disorders in society were discussed.