Health07 Aug 2010 07:04 am
Asperger’s syndrome, also known as AS, is a type of autism spectrum disorder, characterized by abnormalities in social interaction, stereotypies (compulsive or ritualistic movements, postures, or utterances), habitual patterns of behavior or interests and clumsiness. Individuals with AS also have trouble decoding the nonverbal behaviors of others, such as body language and facial expressions. However, people with AS can be distinguished from those afflicted with other forms of autism spectrum disorders, because of their comparatively advanced linguistic and cognitive abilities. The syndrome was named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who in 1944, began writing down his observations about a number of children he had treated over the years, all of whom demonstrated the same mysterious cluster of symptoms now associated with the syndrome, such as clumsiness, poor communication skills, limited empathy and a marked inability to relate to others.
The exact cause of AS in unknown; however, research strongly supports the theory that there is an underlying genetic cause of the syndrome. One of the most compelling theories to emerge recently is the mirror neuron system (MNS) theory. Mirror neurons are brain cells located in the premotor cortex-first identified in macaque monkeys in the early 1990s-that potentially hold the key to the cause of AS and other autism spectrum disorders in humans. Also known as the “monkey-see, monkey-do cells,” scientists discovered that these neurons fire both when a monkey performs an action itself, and also when it observed another monkey performing the same action.
It has thus far been impossible to directly test how these neurons function in human beings (namely because it would be a wee bit unethical to implant electrodes in the brains of human test subjects). However, scientists have been able to confirm the existence of mirror neurons in humans by utilizing several indirect brain imaging tools, such as EEG’s. Most scientists now believe that the MNS in humans is not only involved with the execution and observation of actions, but that it is also implicated in a host of complex learned cognitive processes, including language, behavioral imitation, emotional intelligence and empathy.
Because autism is typified, in part, by difficulty with exactly these aspects of social interaction and communication skills, some scientists previously theorized that there could be a potential link between the MNS and autism spectrum disorders. The conclusions of a recent EEG study, conducted on ten individuals with autism, lends credence to this hypothesis: the researchers found that the mirror neurons of individuals with AS fired only when they performed an action themselves, but did not fire in response to watching the actions of others. These findings could prove to be crucial to the future detection, treatment and etiology of autism spectrum disorders.
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