We imitate others to learn behaviors and acquire skills, including social skills. This ability is impaired in people with schizophrenia, and new research led by 2012 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee Sohee Park, Ph.D., is helping identify the brain mechanisms involved in this difficulty. The results of the new work were reported online on March 14th by the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map levels of brain activity of patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls when asked to imitate some simple tasks. The researchers discovered abnormal activity in a neural network composed of aptly named mirror neurons in the patients with schizophrenia. These cells fire both when we, ourselves, perform an action and when we watch someone else perform it.
Dr. Park, who holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, states: "The mirror neuron system raises the question of agency. If the same group of neurons fire when I am writing and when I watch you writing, how do I know who is doing the writing? But we are almost always certain of who is doing what. Our research implicates the role of this network in individuals with schizophrenia who frequently have serious problems determining agency." Dr. Park is a four-time NARSAD Grantee (1991, 1996, 2004 and 2012).
Dr. Park and colleagues are now working to design tests and treatments that specifically target the mirror neuron network. She states: "We need to be innovative and make use of the brain's plasticity to develop new technology that can rewire their [patients with schizophrenia] brains from the bottom up. We are currently working with a robotics engineering group led by Vanderbilt Professor of Mechanical Engineering Nilanjan Sarkar to make this happen.”