Impairment of actions chains in autism and its possible role in intention understanding.

PNAS 104(45):17825 (2007) PMID 17965234 PMCID PMC2077067

Experiments in monkeys demonstrated that many parietal and premotor neurons coding a specific motor act (e.g., grasping) show a markedly different activation when this act is part of actions that have different goals (e.g., grasping for eating vs. grasping for placing). Many of these "action-constrained" neurons have mirror properties firing selectively to the observation of the initial motor act of the actions to which they belong motorically. By activating a specific action chain from its very outset, this mechanism allows the observers to have an internal copy of the whole action before its execution, thus enabling them to understand directly the agent's intention. Using electromyographic recordings, we show that a similar chained organization exists in typically developing children, whereas it is impaired in children with autism. We propose that, as a consequence of this functional impairment, high-functioning autistic children may understand the intentions of others cognitively but lack the mechanism for understanding them experientially.