Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS


COGSYSTEMS — Result In Brief

Project ID: 250013
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Italy

The what and why of other people's actions

An EU initiative explored how humans understand others' actions and intentions. The multidisciplinary study has shed light on the neurological and perception deficits in children with autistic spectrum disorder.
The what and why of other people's actions
Discovered only about a couple of decades ago, mirror neurons are triggered when an animal acts and when it observes another performing the same action. Extending this to humans where mirror activity is also apparent during learning new skills, this mechanism is thought to be the basis for the linking of action and perception to gain understanding of others' actions. The EU-funded COGSYSTEMS (Understanding actions and intentions of others) project studied the supporting evidence for this theory.

In monkeys, mirror neuron regions occur in the ventral premotor cortex. Using new multielectrode probes, the researchers found that canonical neurons respond to stimuli in personal space whereas mirror neurons tend to fire re stimuli in extrapersonal space or peripersonal space. Moreover, mirror inaction neurons were found to trigger when the monkey is not going to act. The action representation is therefore present when the action is prohibited.

In the cortical network, the team also discovered neurons in the prefrontal cortex that enable the monkey to decide what action to perform – grasp-to-eat or to place.

Researchers tested the hypothesis of the mirror mechanism as a fundamental part of cortical organisation in humans and supported its validity. Looking at hand actions, laughter and tool use, the researchers recorded gamma activity in the cortex. Results showed that the observer recognised all actions performed by others using their own motor repertoire.

Studies on autistic children and their siblings compared with typically developing children revealed that the organisation of intentional motor acts is impaired. In the Florida Apraxia Battery test, the autistic children consistently scored the lowest. They were particularly impaired during imitation of meaningless gestures. Significantly, a correlation was found between performance in pantomime actions and the severity of the autism. The deficit is likely due to impairment in the ability to undergo visuomotor transformations, incidentally required for eye-hand coordination. Inability to recognise the style and meaning of others' actions and their capacity does not improve with age.

Lack of ability to recognise the meaning of other's actions can be used as an important marker of autism. Early diagnosis means that interventions including counselling, psychotherapy, art and behavioural therapies can be applied. As each child is unique, the most effective combination can be selected to improve prognosis.

Related information


Intentions, actions, mirror neurons, ventral premotor cortex, COGSYSTEMS
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