Sunday, January 15, 2006

Mirror neurons

On a hot summer day 15 years ago in Parma, Italy, a monkey sat in a special laboratory chair waiting for researchers to return from lunch. Thin wires had been implanted in the region of its brain involved in planning and carrying out movements.

Every time the monkey grasped and moved an object, some cells in that brain region would fire, and a monitor would register a sound: brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip.

A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in his hand. The monkey stared at him. Then, something amazing happened: when the student raised the cone to his lips, the monitor sounded - brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip - even though the monkey had not moved but had simply observed the student grasping the cone and moving it to his mouth.

The researchers, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, had earlier noticed the same strange phenomenon with peanuts. The same brain cells fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths as when the monkey itself brought a peanut to its mouth.

Later, the scientists found cells that fired when the monkey broke open a peanut or heard someone break a peanut. The same thing happened with bananas, raisins and all kinds of other objects.

"It took us several years to believe what we were seeing," Dr. Rizzolatti said in a recent interview. The monkey brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons, that fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries out the same action on its own.

By now mirror neurons is a well-known story. However, if you are not up to speed Sandra Blakeslee has a nice story in NY Times giving a short run-down of the story so far. (The quote above is from that article.) Afterwards, you will probably enjoy a visit to the homepage of the Physiology Lab at Parma University. That's the home of many of the pricipal investigators working on the mirror neuron cells, including Giacommo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese. They have a lot of their research papers on-line.

I'm chiefly mentioning this because I'm going to put up the next installment in my little series on the neurobiology of culture in a few days. (See the first part here.) Here, mirror neurons play a vital part, and you may want to get a head start!

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