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Through the Looking Glass

April 14, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds blog Brit Trogen

Empathy is what sets us apart from other animals—the ability to share in other creatures’ emotions. We can feel a very real sense of sorrow, for example, just by viewing human suffering, or a sad movie, or even that IKEA commercial with the poor, discarded lamp.

And for decades, many have argued that the biological basis of this ability is rooted in enigmatic brain structures called mirror neurons; neurons that fire both when you perform a particular action, and when you observe the same action being performed by someone else.

Mirror neurons would provide a bridge between the actions and feelings of the other and the self, and could even be responsible for developmental disorders like autism if disrupted. The only problem is, researchers were never able to actually record the activity of these neurons in humans, and until now we’ve had to make do with comparative studies in macaque monkeys and other indirect evidence.

But Dr. Itzhak Fried, Roy Mukamel, and their colleagues at UCLA have finally succeeded where others have failed before. In this month’s edition of Current Biology, they reveal the first direct recording of mirror neurons ever made in humans.

In the study, neuronal activity from 21 patients was recorded while they either observed or executed a particular action (in this case, hand grasping or facial expressions) by reading a direction from a laptop. As a control, they were asked to read the direction but not perform the task. And lo and behold, the mirror neurons made themselves known, nestled in the medial frontal cortex and medial temporal cortex—areas also responsible for movement selection and memory.

It’s a groundbreaking study, not least because the neurons are more prolific in the human brain than previously predicted. And now that we’ve found them, we can finally begin what could turn out to be the most probing research of all: understanding what truly makes us who we are.

(DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.045)

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