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Title: Ability and empathy : investigating the neural and behavioural substrates of manual and facial imitation in neurotypical and autistic populations
Author: Braadbaart, Lieke
ISNI:       0000 0004 5360 4289
Awarding Body: University of Aberdeen
Current Institution: University of Aberdeen
Date of Award: 2014
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Imitation enables social communication and is said to be deficient in people with autism. Yet little research has been done into what differentiates poor from good imitators. This project employed novel quantifiable methods of testing manual and facial imitation to determine how ability as well as empathy (which also enables social interaction) correlate with brain activation using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Manual imitation was tested (in- and outside the MRI-scanner) by asking participants to copy model drawings using a touchscreen that captured their kinematic data. Facial imitation was tested by asking people to copy composite facial expressions and blind-scoring the resulting imitation attempts. First, 28 adults were tested to establish what brain areas enable better imitation and how these relate to empathic abilities. Then, 25 young people with autism and 23 matched controls were tested to see how purported group differences in imitation related to brain activation patterns across and within groups. Results revealed that manual imitation ability correlated with increased activation in different brain areas than facial imitation ability. There was only one area of significant overlap, between facial imitation ability and empathy. Young people with autism were found to be impaired on facial imitation, empathy and some aspects of manual imitation. Nevertheless, fMRI results indicated that ability and age differences played a more important role than autism diagnosis in regulating what brain areas were activated during imitation. Only for the facial imitation task did autistic participants appear to use a different neural mechanism, but this was still mediated by ability. Overall, this methodologically innovative project shows that investigating individual differences in imitation ability, regardless of a diagnosis of autism, can shed more light on what neural mechanisms are crucial for imitation.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: SINAPSE ; Northwood Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorders ; Imitation ; Magnetic resonance imaging