People with autism can feel others’ pain, two new studies show.
robs people of social and language skills and locks people in their own worlds.
Scientists thought that the social defects were due in part to an autistic
person’s inability to determine what other people think and feel and adjust
behavior accordingly. But new research from scientists in
Singer of the
disorder isn’t well known and often doesn’t interfere with people’s lives,
Singer said April 14 in
The researchers first tested couples to find out how empathy works in the brain normally. One partner was in a brain scanner known as an functional MRI, which uses magnetic fields to measure blood flow in the brain, an indicator of brain activity. Researchers made the person feel pain in a hand. A part of the brain called the insula, involved in linking body responses and emotion, lit up in response to the pain. When the partner of the person in the scanner experienced pain, the insula of the partner in the scanner lit up in sympathy.
in people who have alexithymia, their insulas didn’t activate when they saw their
partners in pain. The insulas of people with Asperger's syndrome also lit up
when they saw others in pain, but only when they were in touch with their own
The result may mean that researchers and clinicians should rethink the deficit in empathy associated with Asperger’s syndrome. “I would just claim not all Asperger's [patients] will have an empathy deficit,” Singer says. It’s the degree to which people have alexithymia that determines whether they have an empathy deficit.
study seems to back up Singer’s claim. Researchers at the University Medical
Center Groningen in the
Previous studies showed that when viewing pictures of people making emotional faces, children with autism fail to turn on “mirror” neurons responsible for helping people mimic others’ actions and to empathize.
The researchers expected that the brains of people with autism would not respond to the videos as much as those of healthy people did, says Jojanneke Bastiaansen, one of the Dutch researchers, who presented the results April 15 at neuroscience society meeting.
“It was a nice hypothesis,” she says.
But people with autism actually showed more activity in emotion-control areas and in the parts of the brain associated with controlling facial motion. The result indicates that the mirror neuron system is not broken, Bastiaansen says.
the reaction is far from normal, says Marina Pavlova of the
“You can have so much empathy that it’s painful for you, so you have to disengage,” Pavlova says. “Sometimes autistic people are not insensitive; they’re too sensitive.”
Bastiaansen, J., Thioux, M., Keysers, C. 2008. Mirror Neuron System not Broken in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder for Viewing Emotions of Others. Presentation at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, April 15.
Singer, T. 2008 The Role of the Anterior Insula in Empathy in Healthy Adults: Patients with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Alexithymia, and Buddhist Compassion Meditators. Oral presentation at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, April 14.