mise à jour du
21 septembre 2008
Medical Hypotheses
Contagious yawning:
The mirror neuron system may be
a candidate physiological mechanism
Nicholas R. Cooper, Ignazio Puzzo, Adam D. Pawley
Department of Psychology, University of Essex, Colchester UK


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Bridging a yawning chasm: EEG investigations into the debate concerning the role of the human mirror neuron system in contagious yawning.
Perhaps we are living through boring times but a growing interest in the processes and phylogenetic pressures underlying yawning is emerging [1,2]. In particular, contagious yawning appears to offer a fruitful avenue of investigation to the growing fields of developmental, affective and social neuroscience.
Contagious yawning is observed in humans and other primates [3,4] and here we suggest a possible candidate for a physiological mechanism common to primates and a potential method for investigating this hypothesis. The candidate mechanism is the mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons were first discovered in primates by Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1990s [5] and have since been demonstrated in humans using various psychophysiological techniques: e.g. fMRI [6], PET [7], intracranial recording (see [8]), EEG/ MEG [9] and TMS [10].
Mirror neurons fire not only when carrying out an action but also during the observation of that action carried out by another. Consequently, they have been posited as a means for the emergence of action understanding, imitation and even theory of mind and empathy [11]. Given the correspondence between these attributes and the deficits seen in autism, mirror neurons have also been implicated in this disorder [12]. Interestingly, a recent study by Senju and colleagues reported an absence of contagious yawning in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) [13].
One potentially useful way of examining this hypothesis is with the use of EEG to measure changes in mu activation during the observation of yawns. Mu oscillations are typically seen in the alpha and low beta bandwidths of the EEG (8-12 Hz and 13-20 Hz) over sensorimotor areas. Previous work has shown that mu-suppression is a useful index of mirror neuron activation [14] and is sensitive for example, to differences between control subjects and those with ASD [15].
It will be interesting to see whether changes in mu activation accompany observation of yawn stimuli and whether they vary according to individual differences in autistic traits/levels of empathy. Indeed, this is a not-too-boring enterprise we are currently involved in.
Neural correlates of self-face recognition Platek S et al.
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