Grawemeyer winners say study of mirror neurons will keep them busy for at least a decade
April 19th, 2007
A longtime partnership has yielded “a kind of revolution” in their scientific study, Grawemeyer winner Leonardo Fogassi said in describing his work with fellow University of Parma researchers and award recipients Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese.
And there is work “for the next 10 years at least,” Fogassi said April 18 at the University of Louisville.
The scientists’ work on the brain’s “mirror neurons” garnered the trio the 2007 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology. How some monkeys perceive and imitate — as in the saying “monkey see, monkey do” — may provide clues as to how humans learn by observing - and even empathize and communicate.
Their research could provide insight into troubling disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome and schizophrenia that involve problems with imitation; much attention has been paid lately to its application in understanding autism.
“I’m convinced there is a connection between mirror neurons and autism,” Rizzolatti said.
The three have worked together since the 1980s on the brain-cell basis for many aspects of psychology, including perception, action, language and thought.
The Parma group first observed that certain neurons in a macaque monkey’s brain fire not only when the monkey takes a specific action, such as picking up an object, but also when it sees another individual doing the same thing.
“It’s the meaning of the action that fires the cell,” Gallese said.
Other experiments built on the idea that an action is really a sequence of motor acts. Neurons that activated during an initial motor act, such as grasping an item, appear to reflect the final “action goal” or intention. The neurons responded more when the action was grasping something to eat than grasping something to place somewhere, Fogassi said, in describing an experiment during the Grawemeyer lecture Wednesday.
The trio’s later work showed humans also have a mirror neuron system that could explain how they learn by seeing as well as doing, communicate, feel each other’s pain and perceive each other’s intentions.
Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi are all professors of human physiology at their university in Italy.
Rizzolatti’s research interests include the motor system’s role in cognition and relationship to attention. Gallese focuses on cognitive neurophysiology, neuropsychology, brain imaging and philosophy of the mind.
Fogassi’s research interests include action and perception in the cerebral cortext of humans and monkeys and the neurophysiology of motor responses to sensory stimulation.
Winners of the seventh psychology prize, the three were selected from among 30 nominations from five countries.
Receiving the Grawemeyer Award is special because “that is recognition by other scientists,” Rizzolatti said Wednesday. “The greatest reward is when you discover something.”