Empathy, which has been seen as an abstract emotion, can be scientifically measured and evaluated, a major finding in human-brain mapping which offers hope for the early diagnosis and treatment of autism, according to a research team headed by a Taiwanese doctor.
The research, led by Cheng Ya-wei (鄭雅薇) of Taipei City Hospital, was recognized as one of this year's 10 most-important papers by the Organization for Human Brain Mapping for its contributions in measuring empathy functions in the brain using magnetoencephalography.
The organization is a group dedicated to the development of human functional neuroimaging,
"People with autism suffer from impaired communication due to a lack of empathy and the scientific measurement of empathy will help to provide assistance in the early treatment of autism," Cheng said yesterday at Taipei City Hall during a press conference.
Thanks to this breakthrough, people with autism will be diagnosed earlier, allowing them to receive treatment sooner, Cheng said.
Early intervention is important. as intensive, sustained special education programs and behavior therapy can help children acquire self-care, social and job skills.
Former vice president of Academia Sinica, Ovid Tseng (曾志朗), who acted as Cheng's research adviser, lauded her work.
"After the measurement technique is well developed, all politicians should be tested on their levels of empathy," Tseng said.
According to Tseng, the research not only confirmed the relationship between empathy and mirror neurons, but also highlighted the fact that developing empathy and social relationships is a matter of learning and imitation.
A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when someone performs an action and when the person observes the same action being performed by someone else.
Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another person, as though the observer were performing the action.
These neurons have been directly observed in primates and are believed to exist in humans.
However, the results of brain imaging experiments have shown that the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobule is active when a person performs an action and also when a person sees another individual performing an action.
Therefore, these brain regions are likely to contain mirror neurons and have been defined as the human mirror neuron system.
Cheng said her experiment successfully confirmed that normal people's mirror neurons were much more active when they see another person cut by a knife and suffer pain than those with autism.
As mirror neurons were close to a language region in the brain, Tseng said the research also offered great potential for language studies.
Although the research offered hope for autism treatment, Cheng acknowledged that it was still a long way off due to the complex nature of the condition.
Many genetic and environmental causes have been proposed for autism; in most cases its etiology is not yet known.