Monday, June 29, 2009

No evidence for mirror neurons in humans?!

Given all the hype over the mirror neuron system in humans (basis for constructing social cognition, empathy, mind reading, and the development of language, etc. - this blog has mostly joined the chorus) , this recent work by Lingnau would seem to be quite a bombshell. Their introduction explains the logic, context and basic results:
There are 2 conditions that must be fulfilled by any study that aims to address the existence of mirror neurons in humans. First, it must be demonstrated that execution and recognition of a specific motor act activate a common set of neurons in so-called mirror neuron areas (condition I). Importantly, this overlap must be act specific. Second, it must be demonstrated that activation of neurons within potential mirror neuron areas results from direct activation and not from a prior nonmotor categorization on the basis of inferences about potential motor acts from minimal visual cues, e.g., seeing a hand move toward a familiar graspable object, inviting the inference that the actor's intention may be to grasp the object (condition II).
Their study meets these conditions:
We studied within- and cross-modal adaptation for simple intransitive motor acts that are not associated with a particular meaning, such that any observed adaptation effect could not be attributed to adaptation of the same semantic representation or the same object. Furthermore, to ensure that participants would not be able to guess the target motor act from initial features of a movement, we used 8 different unpredictable movements that could be distinguished from each other only at a relatively late phase of the movement.

We found adaptation for executed motor acts, when these were preceded by execution or observation of the same motor act, as would be expected if a previously executed or observed motor act were to prime the subsequent execution of that act. Importantly, we found no sign of adaptation when motor acts were first executed and then observed. ...our data do not support the direct matching account, according to which neurons exist that selectively respond to actions irrespective of whether these are observed or executed. Our data are compatible with the assumption that responses in mirror neuron areas reflect the facilitation of the motor system because of learned associations between semantic representation of actions and their generating motor programs.


  1. Dear Deric

    I'm a first time poster on your blog currently doing a research project on action/observation. While I find this current research interesting it seems that it is generateing a disproportionate amount of attention. This especially true when compared to an article by Chong et al. (2008) which appeared in current biology last year and seems to show the exact opposite of the results found in the current study, i.e. adaptation for observation of recently executed actions but not for execution of recently observered actions. At the moment it seems that these studies tell us more about the unreliability of fMRI adaptation than it does about mirror neurons.

  2. Hey, thanks for your comment. I missed that article. Here is the Chong link: