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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Empathy finding offers autism hope
MRI scan of the brain, Corbis
The scientists used MRI scans to pinpoint the brain's responses
Having empathy for other people is a much more simple and basic emotion than thought, scientists have found.

The research, by a group of Dutch scientists, may be the first step to tackling the causes of autism, and may even suggest the idea that animals can sense their owners' feelings is not entirely myth.

Experiments by scientists at the University of Groningen have shown that developing empathy is just a matter of learning which emotions go with certain events.

The brain then becomes conditioned to trigger the same response when those events involve other people.

"It's fairly basic," Dr Nerender Ramnani, a neurobiologist and research scientist at Oxford University, told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"We light up the motor system [in the brain], not only when we predict the actions of others, but also when we plan our own actions."

Practical application

There are two theories as to how the brain develops its ability to predict people's actions.

One, "theory theory", argued that it was due to logical processes. But the other, "simulation theory", is the idea that we put ourselves in the shoes of other people to guess what they will do.

Cat and owner reading a book in a Tokyo cafe
Can your cat sense your bad day at work?
This means we will use the same area of the brain when predicting others' actions as when we plan our own - and this is what the Dutch scientists have found.

They scanned people's brains under two conditions - both while they were planning actions and while they were predicting the actions of another person - and found the same area of the brain lit up under both.

"That suggests that there's some support for the simulation hypothesis," Dr Ramnani said.

The research may one day have practical purposes in relation to some autistic individuals, who are unable to identify with other people's feelings. But Dr Ramnani warned that this may be some time yet.

Learning empathy

"We're starting to learn something about [autistic people's] ability; specifically, to predict the actions of other people," he said.

"But I think we're a long way off actually being able to help them."

It is not only autistic people who have a reduced ability to empathise with others - it also happens in conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

And Dr Michael Isaac, of Lewisham University Hospital in London, said that empathy was something that could be learned to an extent in some people who exhibit autistic-like behaviour.

He stated that this was possible, "if you are explicitly taught - if you are given a series of quite simple rules.

"For example, a lot of what we do is based on imitation. If somebody rises to get up and go, it's almost an automatic response to get up and rise as well... You can learn, to a large degree, to simulate empathy."

However, he added that this was not possible for "the truly autistic person", as for them another person "doesn't exist at all".


SEE ALSO:
Autism link to male sex hormones
19 Apr 04  |  Health
Gene 'increases risk of autism'
31 Mar 04  |  Health
'Why my autism is a gift'
29 Jul 03  |  Health
Mother sheds light on autism
03 Mar 04  |  Scotland


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