It is well known that people on the autism spectrum (ASD) lack social skills, and in particular the ability to share emotions with others. They have difficulties understanding the feelings of people around them by just looking at them, as if they were partially blind to facial expressions and body language. Typical individuals use facial expressions on a constant basis to make sense of the social world around them. Empathy, defined as an affective response to another's person's emotional state, is accompanied by emotional sharing and is a crucial component of our social life. Because they seem to lack the means enabling the rest of us to make accurate predictions about the behavior of other people, ASD individuals have great difficulties making sense of the social world.
Pain induces an affective state accompanied by specific facial expressions and brain activation of precise areas that together form a well known network: the “pain matrix”. In this study, we decided to investigate brain responses to faces expressing pain in high functioning ASD individuals.
Because viewing and experiencing pain elicit the same activations in the brain, the activated regions are said to have mirrors properties. However, this property cannot be asserted at the neuron level since it is ethically not conceivable to do electrophysiological recording in healthy humans.
Deficits of empathy in ASD have been claimed to result from a deficit in the Mirror Neuron System (MNS). We further investigate this hypothesis by comparing activation in the MNS and in ASD individuals and typical controls.