A Radical Theory of Autism

V.S. Ramachandran: Children with autism, they are lacking in empathy, emotional empathy, which enormously involve mirror neurons. They are unable to adopt somebody else’s point of view on a conceptual level, possible even on a perceptual level. And is also something that you ascribe, this function to mirror neurons, that’s missing in autism are impoverished in autism. So there's lack of emotional empathy.

There’s also a lack of pretend play. Pretend play by definition in normal children or non-autistic children, requires that you put yourself in the shoes of that doll or that action figure. Pretend you are Superman. Suspend reality for a short while and pretend you are Superman. This autistic children are incapable of doing is undoubtedly one of the functions of mirror neurons. You need to tap into the mirror neurons in order to put yourself in the shoes of the action figure.

And also, sophisticated imitation, which is missing in many autistic children, is another function of mirror neurons. Impoverished language is something that you see in autistic children. 

So if you make a list of all the properties, emotional empathy, theory of other minds, imitation, pretend play and you look at all those functions of mirror neurons and make a tabular column of the functions that are deficient in autism, there’s almost a perfect fit. This is what led us to suggest over 10 years ago, or maybe about 10 years ago, that mirror neuron dysfunction might be the basis of autism, it might be one of the major causes of autism.

Now there are several groups which have shown this to be true doing brain imaging, but there’s one group who claims they don’t see a mirror neuron deficit. So what I’m arguing is—this is highly speculative at this point, I would say there are evidence that is suggestive, but not compelling or persuasive, but not compelling. So, we will have to wait and see. 

Big Think: If this turns out to be the case, how will it impact the way autism is treated?

V.S. Ramachandran: The question is, is the mirror neuron system completely deranged or is there less than residual activity still there. And I suspect there is some residual activity.  Can you tap into that activity using biofeedback? You know, there are EEG signals associated with mirror neurons and mirror neuron deficiency. So can the patient be taught to enhance by watching the computer screen and by using biofeedback, enhance the EEG signal, thereby indirectly recruiting more neurons and enhancing the activity of the mirror neurons? This is still very experimental, but people are trying it.

The other possibility is mirror neuron systems may have specific transmitters associated with them. It wouldn’t be surprising, for example, for we all know that “E” enhances… Ecstasy enhances empathy. It’s quite possible it is acting through the mirror neuron system. Especially parts of the mirror neuron system that are in the insular cortex and parts of the mirror neuron system that are concerned with the emotional empathy. Maybe if you knew what transmitters were involved you can engineer drugs that tap into that and enhance activity in the mirror neuron system.

Another way is to do exercises by synchronized dancing, like the Rockettes using multiple mirror reflections to enhance activity in mirror neurons. All of this is hypothetical and purely speculative, unlikely to work, but worth trying.

Mirror neurons, the cells in the brain that fire when watching others do actions, might be deficient in people with autism. Perhaps, drugs like ecstasy that enhance empathy, could be used to treat this deficiency.

The surprising psychology of sex with your ex

We all know sleeping with your ex is a bad idea, or is it?

Sex & Relationships
  • In the first study of its kind, researchers have found sex with an ex didn't prevent people from getting over their relationship.
  • Instead of feeling worse about their breakup after a hookup, the new singles who attempted sexual contact with their ex reported feeling better afterwards.
  • The findings suggest that not every piece of relationship advice is to be taken at face value.
Keep reading Show less

Relationship hack: Why class clowns make better partners

Want a happy, satisfying relationship? Psychologists say the best way is to learn to take a joke.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • New research looks at how partners' attitudes toward humor affects the overall quality of a relationship.
  • Out of the three basic types of people, people who love to be laughed at made for better partners.
  • Fine-tuning your sense of humor might be the secret to a healthy, happy, and committed relationship.
Keep reading Show less

Single algae cells can help deliver targeted medicine

Tiny and efficient, these biodegradable single cells show promise as a way to target hard-to-reach cancers.

Credit: O. Yasa et al./Adv. Mater.
Surprising Science
  • Scientists in Germany have found a potential improvement on the idea of bacteria delivering medicine.
  • This kind of microtargeting could be useful in cancer treatments.
  • The microswimmers are biodegradable and easy to produce.

Metin Sitti and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently demonstrated that tiny drugs could be attached to individual algae cells and that those algae cells could then be directed through body-like fluid by a magnetic field.

The results were recently published in Advanced Materials, and the paper as a whole offers up a striking portrait of precision and usefulness, perhaps loosely comparable in overall quality to recent work done by The Yale Quantum Institute. It begins by noting that medicine has been attached to bacteria cells before, but bacteria can multiply and end up causing more harm than good.

A potential solution to the problem seems to have been found in an algal cell: the intended object of delivery is given a different electrical charge than the algal cell, which helps attach the object to the cell. The movement of the algae was then tested in 2D and 3D. (The study calls this cell a 'microswimmer.') It would later be found that "3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers increased more than twofold compared to their 2D mean swimming speed." The study continues —

More interestingly, 3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers in the presence of a uniform magnetic field in the x-direction was approximately threefolds higher than their 2D mean swimming speed.

After the 2D and 3D speed of the algal was examined, it was then tested in something made to approximate human fluid, including what they call 'human tubal fluid' (think of the fallopian tubes), plasma, and blood. They then moved to test the compatibility of the microswimmer with cervical cancer cells, ovarian cancer cells, and healthy cells. They found that the microswimmer didn't follow the path of bacteria cells and create something toxic.

The next logical steps from the study include testing this inside a living organism in order to assess the safety of the procedure. Potential future research could include examining how effective this method of drug delivery could be in targeting "diseases in deep body locations," as in, the reproductive and gastrointestinal tracts.