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Luke Parkitny on neurons that mirror

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GLOBAL YEAR

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It is well recognised that the sensory and motor neurons in your brain light up excitedly when you feel or do something. Now we also realise that many of those neurons are actually more interested in what people are doing around you.

These ‘mirror neurons’, according to VS Ramachandran, may have even played a key role in the rapid development of human civilisation and societies. Firstly, imagine that one of your ancestors stumbled upon a particularly useful skill. His nosy neighbour could simply sneak a look and his brain would instantly engage in copying the action. Deep inside the learner’s brain, motor mirror neurons would light up as if he himself was physically performing the task. Secondly, imagine that you see someone being hit. You can almost feel that person’s pain as your sensory mirror neurons fire off, copying what the other person feels. You empathise with their pain; there is shared understanding, you might be moved to help them and perhaps even ultimately become friends. Mirroring others certainly appears beneficial to learning and social progress!

Normally, of course, your brain can tell the difference between what you see and what you actually feel and do. It does this by comparing what you see to the information flowing in from your body. What if we remove the normal flow of nerve information by numbing or amputating? It has been shown that in such cases people can literally feel what they see happening to someone else. For example, an arm amputee may report easing of pain while watching someone having their hand massaged. Other research has even shown that we can become rather intimately acquainted with a rubber hand! The implications of the mirror neurons are plenty when considering the possible application to understanding and treating problems like phantom limbs, CRPS, and stroke.

Luke Parkitny

Luke is a PhD student with the Prince of Wales Clinical School at the University of New South Wales. He is researching some of the factors that play a role in the development of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

Luke joins the team with a background of clinical practice and research in Western Australia. He has rapidly cultivated an interest in all things pain and has very successfully exploited every opportunity to share this knowledge with other health professionals and lay-persons

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