Saturday, May 15, 2010

mirror neuron minutae revisited

Regular readers of autism's gadfly will remember last year I wrote a piece about mirror neurons. I discussed the work of one of my idols, Marco Iacoboni and his wife Mirella Dapretto who have done work showing that certain areas of the brain that have been shown not only to be involved in motor responses but in the learning of motor responses and the firing when other people are doing them might be involved in the etiology of autism

Recently, a researcher named Ilan Dinstein along with several coauthors has published work refuting the mirror neuron hypothesis in autism. Though this is just one study, out of many replicated studies showing dysfunction in the mirror neuron systems. The media has picked this up and in some instances implied that it refutes the mirror neuron hypothesis of autism. It is Dinstein's contention that the previous mirror neuron studies in autism have not assessed for selectivity of cortical activity in mirror system areas for particular movements. For example a different set of mirror neurons may respond differently to a thumbs down movement seen and/or executed than a thumbs up movement. Their results showed that the autistic subjects had the same cortical responses during observation and execution of the movements. They observed repeated versus nonrepeated movements, showing that the autistics had the same responses as the controls on motor fatigue, i.e., the mirror neurons programmed for a certain type of movement getting used to the image of thumbs up, thumbs down or a hawaian hang loose hand sign. Dr. Dapretto's work, however, was a little different in that she observed reactions to various facial expressions. It is possible that hand movements are mediated differently than facial responses. In other studies Dinstein and colleagues assert that movement selectivity was not controlled for and this confounded the results.

Again, Dinstein's work has one of the same problems so rampant in autism research in that the current research techniques are not suitable for lower functioning autistics with IQ's of less than 100 due to movement in an MRI scanner and lack of compliance. The subjects were also older than those in Dapretto's work, average age of 27, whereas Dapretto used all children, so this might limit comparison. One possibility is that even if autism's etiology in higher functioning persons is due to mirror neuron dysfunction that they might develop compensatory functions in adulthood. Apparently the autistics and the controls were not matched on IQ. Also they were not matched on gender. All of the autistic subjects were male, half the controls female, and men and women certainly have different brain physiologies and possibly responses.

To summarize Dinstein and his coauthors argue that the entire mirror neuron areas in the frontal and parietal lobes were measured in other studies (If I am not misunderstanding this, anyone can correct me in comments if i am wrong and I will edit the post) They measured specific brain areas as well as the habituation of repeated exposure to these specific which they claim is necessary to show whether or not mirror neurons are an issue in autism. The results, they claim suggest that there is no mirror neuron impairment in autism. It seemed to me that Dinstein was implying that artifacts could have contributed to some of the positive findings of mirror neurons in autism, such as autistics imitating the movement more slowly than healthy controls. Also, the fact that they did not select for areas of particular movements in the prior studies suggest that other areas than mirror neurons could have been recruited such as visual areas and working memory. But Iacoboni is apparently standing by his work and stating that the results don’t prove what the researchers say they do, because their trick of focusing on fatigued neurons will miss some mirror neurons. Furthermore, he says, simply testing brain activity involved in identifying and mimicking movements does not accurately model the brain activity underlying complex social tasks.

On a more personal note, when I read Dinstein's study, it elicited an emotional response for me. I don't know whether to believe Iacaboni/Dapretto or Dinstein. Of course, if I am not mistaken there is a lot of evidence in the literature that suggests that mirror neurons may play an etiologic role in autism and Dr. Dinstein's study has not yet been replicated by an independent investigator. For almost all of my life I have wanted to know what caused my problems. Of course there were the various theories I have heard throughout my life. I first heard in the 1960s it was in part because I saw my sister naked when she was born nearly 3 years after I was and I noticed she did not have something I had and I was worried mine would be cut off. This was one of the standard beliefs during the Bettelheim era of the 1950s and 1960s, which, as I have written before, I am an actual veteran of, unlike most persons in the autism blogosphere. I then heard about the cerebellar things that Courchesne wrote about, but that did not seem to tell me a whole lot. Then there was the mirror neuron stuff which was very intriguing. But my pipe dream of knowing exactly what has caused this horrible disability in myself will most likely not be fulfilled. I was even more frustrated to read the stuff that Michelle Dawson and Morton Gernsbacher write about how autistics brains are not damaged variations of neurotypical brains.

In a fit of frustration, I did sort of a silly thing ( I do and say silly things because of my disability sometimes) and I wrote Dr. Iacaboni an email asking him if he would make a statement on his twitter and facebook pages (which I read from time to time) about Dinstein's study and what the implications were for the result of his own work. I wrote to him about my frustration and anger and how I wish I could find out exactly what was wrong with me and how frustrated I was with Gernsbacher and some others. I told him that I would understand if he did not wish to answer me.

He wrote me a very nice reply back stating that there were numerous methodological problems in Dinstein's work but that given that it was nearing the end of the academic year he was busier than he usually was assisting students in graduating from graduate school and other things, but that he was revamping the website of their lab and was going to add a blog where he would go by a blow by blow of the problems with the current study and that he would tweet about it soon. He also gave me some advice on how I could work on my attitude.

I enjoyed very much receiving a reply from this well known and eminent neuroscientist and stellar individual whose book "mirroring people" I read last year.

Of course I am too low functioning and my knowledge of science and research methodology is probably too limited to determine which of the two are correct. Of course there is the old saying about killing the messenger. I guess I can't be angry at either Iacoboni or Dinstein for disagreeing and not being able to give me some real answers as to what the etiology of my handicaps are.

I guess I will have to live and make do without some real answers.


Socrates said...

I've never thought you've a worse or better attitude than the rest of us.

Some of us can take a bit of 'tude on the chin and move on. I'd rather you came at me f'in' and blindin' than sitting there in chintzy decorum and being so f'in' polite I miss the point.

I wonder what his attitude would be like if he'd had your life?

I don't think Jake Crosby's got what it takes to take it like a man. Strangely, I think Ari Ne'eman has. Just as well, 'cause his confirmation is looking stuffed.

Sorry, rambling, leaving now...

jonathan said...

Socrates, did you write this comment under the influence of alcohol or some other illicit substance?

Anonymous said...

It's not so much that you're low-functioning. It's more like because of your likelihood of having NVLD that you're better at researching and understanding these case studies easily since your strengths fall within the verbal area and your weaknesses fall within anything involving methodological.

As for me, I'm pretty sure my mirror neurons are out of wack due to my MRELD component of my autism, but at least therapy has been helping me process information more quickly. If I watched someone put his thumb down my mirror neurons should coordinate more smoothly than before I had the therapy.

The only time I'm likely to be delayed in responding to a task would be in a situation equivalent to me as a kid playing "Simon Says" in a classroom full of other kids who are simultaneously attempting to follow along with their teacher. Then of course if I saw a kid made a mistake and I did what he did, I'd be "out" thanks to me getting distracted.

When it came to reading your post, I actually had to skim over what you wrote a couple times, even as I was typing so I could respond here appropriately, especially in the paragraph above so it doesn't look like I responded as if I comprehended some of what I read backwards. Of course you would be far better than me in being able to answer questions like, "Which people were in charge of which case studies?" with only having read your research one or two times.

While I agree that we each have a disability that's serious enough to impact our daily lives, I'm honestly quite shocked other people on the autistic spectrum don't seem to comprehend that no matter how hard we try to explain how we feel about Neurodiversity, the evidence you display on your blog, and what we have to go through every day due to our disabilities that we should be proud of ourselves. Excuse me? So I should be content with my limitations? That's so f*cking unbelievable!

Socrates said...

If you mean was I drunk in charge of a PC. Almost certainly. I don't remember being here and my head hurts.

SM69 said...

Personally I have never thought the mirror neuron hypothesis in autism was likely to be correct- the main reason why is exactly as stated Ilan Dinstein in the video linked to the Neuron paper:

“Could such heterogeneity of symptoms be caused by single dysfunctioning neuropopulation located in a particular brain area or are they more likely caused by widespread abnormalities apparent throughout the brain.”

Widespread abnormalities throughout the brain is much more consistent with the findings across published brain imaging studies - every single area is found in one study or another to be “abnormal”. Keeping in mind that many studies cannot detect abnormalities and propose instead a peripheral influence on brain function.

Second main argument: Generally speaking a difference in “lighting” up in a particular brain region following a given activity does not indicate a causation, nor does it indicates that the area is centrally implicated in the condition. It could just as well show an adaptation phenomenon. If we are talking about adaptation, the selection of subjects, in that instance, HFA, average IQ 110 etc is a very important factor to take in consideration in order to interpret the data.

Martha Herbet proposes that there are likely many dysfunction pathways that can lead to autism. This is the most plausible explanation as it is the most consistent with the many known genetic and environmental aetiologies of the conditions (yes plurals). These pathways are unlikely to converge to a single brain structure, because much more consistent brain imaging results would have been identified by now if that were the case. More likely, we are talking instead of deregulation in the integrations of functions and messages across domains, across systems. That is more consistent with spiky cognitive profiles, the diverse aetiologies, and with the wide range of weak potential genetic associations frond throughout the genome.

Making sense of the world is complex. Making sense of a face, expression, communication, emotions, all implies, putting a complex range of information together into a cohesive whole. What makes social information different from making sense of a visual pattern for example, is not just that it is social in nature, but perhaps, more likely that it requires a much broader range of parameters placed into perspective of each others, like in a complex matrix, which will have only a limited range of correct interpretation. Can people with autism generate such matrix to make sense of the world accurately in order to assist with their behaviour?

Such model would predict that an” integration dysfunction” would be associated with problems of behaviour, socialisation, motor planning, executive function, short-term memory, as well as a wide range of physiological dysfunction, with various degrees of impairments across individuals. Which is how autism presents.

Anonymous said...

And this little piggy from my state went crying "wee wee wee" all throughout her "nature trip" as she got lost in the woods without bringing a compass or guardian due to her autism until she was rescued. This was most likely due to her misfired mirror neurons.

The worst part of the whole incident was when she exclaimed outloud to the public on national TV, "I really did get to see nature!" as if she could care less about her life.

Oh, the reactions and laughs of how she's doing and what she did when she came home from the hospital! -

Anonymous said...

When you wake up each morning, you have the power of making choices. What you do tomorrow morning is all up to you.....oh wait, not when you're autistic and/or have some other problems. It's like you're always thinking about how you could have the power to make choices but something is preventing you from doing so (i.e. executive dysfunction).

Never in my life do I feel comfortable enough to use this power neurotypicals are blessed with and know how to easily take advantage of it without anyone stopping them.

SM69 said...

As a further note on your disappointment Jonathan to read that some novel science (published in Neuron, that is a absolute top Journal) contradicts what you thought was making sense and giving you some answers to your questions about yourself, I’d like to say that almost any fact in science can receive both confirmation and contradiction findings. This is the nature of the field. When these controversies are driven only by diverging experimental settings, groups samples, etc. this is good, expected and acceptable. But when the findings are shaped by vested interests, this is a totally different situation, which is totally unacceptable. Its not just financial incentives that shape research (funding sources no doubt influence what research is being conducted and how), but it is also the scientific pride scientists have of proposing a theory and designing experiments to establish it. Scientists should only be driven by the interest of knowledge and not by holding supremacy positions on concepts or within their academic community. There are true scientists around, but there are also many who are driven by interest.

I have switched my perspective, hopes, and references on absolutes and beliefs many times in my life. This was essential for me, not because I have a disability I needed to understand, but because I needed a system of references I could trust. I scrapped families values very early on, and as a French citizen, most of us have scrapped nationalist and religious ones too. That does not leave much. The next one was science. Unfortunately, I essentially scrapped this too, exactly because of all the vested financial interest that come into play. Some areas of science are a lot more affected than others. Art… well, all is relative isn’t it? So what does it leave?


The answers to all dilemmas, questions, aspirations, everything you can think of are within each of us.

Heather Babes said...

I know I'm late to this post but I have to respond to JediKnight2. He or she wrote:

"I'm honestly quite shocked other people on the autistic spectrum don't seem to comprehend that no matter how hard we try to explain how we feel about Neurodiversity, ... that we should be proud of ourselves. Excuse me? So I should be content with my limitations? That's so f*cking unbelievable!"

I have to say as an adult with autism, who is not as unhappy with my life as other in similar circumstances appear to be in their lives, that my being proud to be autistic has nothing to do with my "content with my limitations." I strive to move those boundaries further and further out every day. Not only do I have autism but I have severe, chronic pain from several physical disabilities as well. My life is not all rainbows. But, having a more positive approach and acceptance of who I am, deep down, certainly seems to make me happier overall.

Accepting who you are and being proud of that has nothing to do with accepting LIMITS. Whether or limits are placed on you by yourself, by others or by a disease, some are the type that can be overcome. Other's aren't. And if there is a limit that I cannot overcome, at this moment, in my life, I move on. I focus on what I CAN change. I think that's different than how JediKnight2 was explaining it.

Then again, I don't consider myself part of the ND camp (or the cure camp, or the pro-vac vs. anti-vac camp either for that matter). I'm just me and speaking only for me and my experiences. Perhaps tho, some of those who make comments from the ND side aren't saying that you should be happy that you're limited.. what they're saying is that you should focus on fixing what you can and accommodating for what can't be fixed and counting those silver linings and blessings.

I know I am technically higher functioning than most auties I've encountered because I have learned how to use executive functioning to a large degree (although it DOES take a lot out of me to do it). But I think we're all able to improve in SOME areas. It'll be different for each of us as our autism affects us differently, individually.

I really hope this middle road can be found soon. All this strife is so upsetting. It causes the main messages to get lost when you focus on the in-fighting stuff.

Anonymous said...

"I have to say as an adult with autism, who is not as unhappy with my life as other in similar circumstances appear to be in their lives, that my being proud to be autistic has nothing to do with my "content with my limitations."


That's a good thing and it's the right attitude to have, but Neurodiversity does not preach this at all. They are so good at manipulating other individuals on the autistic spectrum without even trying because the only way you'll fit in with them is by becoming a blind sheep, and many autistic people are naive enough to fall into this trap as they're socially impaired in the first place. What they fail to realize is that if autism could be cured, there wouldn't be anything to preach about nearly everyday within the autism community (online, that is since they don't have any real friends and other personal issues they cannot let go of) at all.

If someone could invent a cure for back pain, of course you'd take it, yet Neurodiversity would tell you that curing your autism is a completely different story. What they fail to realize is that curing physical and mental disabilities are the SAME thing- it falls under the same generalization pattern but autistic people struggle with that concept as that's been well-documented for a great number of years. Just take a look at this site:

Autistics may be good at memorizing facts (even what other people say despite lacking the ability to be able to distinguish whether to believe what others say are true, false, or just an opinion), but they have trouble generalizing them. It doesn't matter how many times someone autistic from Neurodiversity has read that page; he/she will overanalyze all of its content and come up with his/her own excuses as to why NTs view autistic people the way that page describes how they think and learn. They don't even realize they're only continuing to beat the same dead horse over and over, and they'll only continue beating it until the day they pass away, which leads others to wack them infinitely until they die. The ones who were slow to figure this concept out (such as myself) often regret not figuring it out quicker.

Also, even when Neurodiversity claims and preaches others to accept themselves, it's not like they preach this concept once. They bring it up OBSESSIVELY, and then if you're quick to criticize them, they'll use their "autism card" by telling you you're discriminating them.

Furthermore, many of the advocates who claim to stand up for "autism rights" do not realize each individual is affected with autism and other co-morbid conditions to a different extent, often worse than they're affected, and that advocate often has borderline Asperger's- sometimes even a personality disorder claiming to have Asperger's yet isn't diagnosed.

BTW, I'm a male.

Anonymous said...

As for my case, I'm stuck with my speech therapist who manipulates me and the rest of my group even though she's been a huge advantage for us in many ways due to our expressive and/or receptive language impairments, so I can't let go of her until I'm at where me and her are comfortable at (whenever that will be).

I don't want to rely on a "script" for the rest of my life just so I won't, for example, mispronounce a word without being corrected even though I already know it. It's not like I was informed as to what the therapist was going to do to me. I just assumed it would be like receiving neurofeedback. Instead, we have to follow these "orthodox" social scripts as if we're men from those chick-flick movies.

Ok, here's an example of what I don't like about the therapy:

My group and I will hang out to see a movie (for the nth time since we rarely have authority to do what we want when we're with the speech therapist), and one of my members will laugh out loud harder than everyone else in the theater (OMG, it's like he's a child again since he didn't exactly have a complete one). I bring it up to my therapist privately, and she asks me if it bothers me? I try reasoning with her but she doesn't let me, so if it comes up in the future and my therapist asks me why I didn't answer, "yes" to her question, it's like how was I supposed to know it was okay for me to answer my true feelings without being criticized?
And then there's other stuff like that that occurs throughout the whole process, only some of it goes even deeper to the point you cannot explain to anyone, not even your parents, as to why you're acting like a walking zombie. Then I wonder if my parents are even aware of what's going on with me, but I'm sure they do.

Anyway, Neurodiversity members should be lucky they don't have my problems, although there's a good chance at least 20-30% of its members don't even know they have MRELD, ELD or RLD which would explain their rowdy behavior.