Pier Francesco Ferrari 2014-12-11 5.30 pm
"Understanding the mirror mechanism during development – implications for brain plasticity and behavior"
Department of Neuroscience, University of Parma, Italy
Abstract: Mirror neurons (MN) have been originally found, and investigated for years, in macaque monkeys. Their pattern of activity and the anatomical connections with the descending corticospinal pathway prompted the idea that they are involved in several behavioral and cognitive processes, such as imitation and action recognition. The existence of a similar mechanism in other primate species and in birds points to a common evolutionary pathway in which action and perception became critically coupled in order to support important cognitive functions in social cognition and communication. More recent studies expanded our knowledge on the mirror mechanism and of MN functional role. By recording these neurons during the observation of complex action sequences (e.g. reach-grasp an object to eat it, to place it into a container or to give it to another individual) it has been shown that their discharge is modulated by the end-goal of the action, the observed agent’s gaze direction and the social context in which an action is observed. These data suggest that mirror neurons are part of a network involved in decoding others’ intentions. Moreover, the variation of mirror neurons activity under different experimental conditions suggest that environmental factors and experience can induce critical changes on how this mechanism respond to and decode social stimuli. In the last decade the mirror mechanism has been investigated in early development to understand its potential implication in the emergence of key social behaviors. Several behavioral phenomena, already present in the early stages of development (neonatal imitation, facial mimicry), seem to involve a mirror mechanism. Electoencephalografic findings in newborn macaques support the hypothesis that a mirror mechanism operates in the early stages of postnatal development and that early adverse social experiences affect its functioning. This mechanism therefore could be used as a marker of social skills in postnatal development with critical implications for psychopathologies where social competence is compromised. MN thus may provide an original and unitary account of basic aspects of social cognition and behavior, and offer new insights on the interactions between brain plasticity and early experience.