A new study suggests that those with schizophrenia have an impaired ability to imitate. The brain-mapping experiment shows a difference in brain activity when asked to repeat simple behaviors. Researchers involved with the study believe the experiment can help develop the imitation skills of schizophrenic patients to improve their social skills.
Neuroscientists at Vanderbuilt University performed the brain-mapping experiment. Imitating is a building block of social interaction. Consider, for example, how parents and educators play with babies in order to get them to mimic their behavior. These researchers wanted to see if the social interactions of schizophrenic patients were impaired by the hindered ability to imitate behavior. If the subjects had never developed the ability to imitate, they would not be able to develop more advanced social interactions. If the study could detect a problem, the researchers might be able to develop a solution to strengthen their ability to imitate and, in turn, strengthen their social skills.
The study was published on March 14 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. It details how subjects were asked to mimic simple hand movements while their brains were being monitored. The brain maps showed normal activity, meaning they were capable of imitating the movement. Author Katharine Thakkar states that the brain functioning noticed here is critical for social interaction.
Schizophrenia is associated with strange behavior, delusional behavior, the tendency to make accusations, difficulty concentrating, hallucinations, irritability, difficulty sleeping, lack of emotion and difficulty with social interactions.
Understanding how major social problems begin is vital in helping people with schizophrenia lead normal lives, according to Philip Harvey, a University of Miami Miller School of Medicine psychiatric professor.
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is a first of its kind as it relates to schizophrenia. The neuroscientists recorded changes in blood flow during the experiment using 16 medicated schizophrenia patients and 16 healthy schizophrenic subjects.
Participants watched a video clip of a hand pressing a button or of an animated “X” that appeared on various parts of a still hand. The subjects were then asked to imitate the behavior in the video. Sometimes they were asked to push the button or show where the “X” appeared, other times they were simply asked to observe the behavior.
Researchers found that those with schizophrenia had altered brain levels. Interestingly, they had increased brain activity when not imitating the behavior. The problem is that they perceive things the same way, whether they are doing the activity or watching someone else do the activity. These overactive and under-active responses in the brain have been studied in primates and are referred to as mirror neurons.
The reactions in the brains of healthy people are “finely tuned ” in response to social interactions. However, they are “out of tune” in those who suffer from schizophrenia, according to the director of the study, Sohee Park. The goal now is to figure out how to help those with schizophrenia fine tune their ability to process social interactions.
Park does not expect a magic pill to be able to cure schizophrenia. Instead, she hopes the research using brain-mapping will help put effort into improving their basic skills, like imitation,which in the long run, would help with social interactions.
By Tracy Rose