London, May 13 : An Australian study has given more force to the idea that "mirror neurons", brain cells that fire up when one does something as well as when a person sees someone else do the same thing, are key to our ability to empathise with others.
Peter Enticott, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, says that he and his colleagues have found that people who are good at interpreting facial expressions have more active "mirror neuron" systems.
The researcher says that his study supports the theory that mirror neurons allow people to mimic what others are doing, and thereby enables a person to empathise with others.
During the study, 20 healthy adults were asked to look at certain pairs of images.
One of the tasks they were assigned was to decide whether paired images of faces were the same persons, while another task was to decide whether both faces were showing the same emotion.
The volunteers were also asked to watch video clips of thumb movement, a hand grasping a pen and a hand while writing.
As they watched the video, the researchers recorded the activity in primary motor cortex of their brains, an area that contains mirror neurons.
This way the researchers measured how much the thumb was primed to move just by watching another thumb moving.
The researchers say that this measure is a proxy for mirror neuron activity.
Writing in their study report, the researchers revealed that the volunteers who were better at judging people's emotions had higher mirror neuron activity in the thumb task.
However, there was no correlation between the ability to recognise faces and mirror neuron activity.
The researchers infer this observation as suggesting that mirror neurons are involved in understanding emotions as well as in the mimicry of actions.
"(The study) connects the two different functions - the motor aspect with the emotional processing aspect. They show that mirror neurons for motor activity are related to mirror neurons for emotions," New Scientist quoted Lindsay Oberman, at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, US, as saying.
The study has been published in the journal Neuropsychologia.