BPS research digest and mirror neurons

Some of you may not be aware of the wonderful BPS research digest which presents short descriptions of recent research. It is published fortnightly. You can subscribe to it or just have a look here.

The most recent digest published details of research by Arne Mukamel et al. (2010) which seems to have produced the first ever direct glimpse of mirror neurons in humans. The researchers made use of investigations being conducted on patients with severe epilepsy. These patients had electrodes implanted into their brains to identify the location of their seizures – this meant the researchers could record the acivity of individual cells. Mukamel et al. arranged for 21 of the patients and his colleagues recruited 21 of these patients to look at videos of hand gestures or facial expressions on a laptop, or to perform those same gestures and expressions. Most of the 1177 cells that were recorded showed a response either to the execution of an action or the sight of that action, not both. However, 8% of the cells responded to both i.e. were ‘mirror’ neurons. The observed cells were located in the front of the brain, the region involved in planning and controlling actions, abstract thinking and memory.

Past research suggested that mirror neurons existed in the regions of the brain involved in performing actions so this new research may support the idea that mirror neurons are important for empathy. The ultimate test would be to block the activity of mirror neurons and see if a person could still understand the actions of another person.