The mirror neuron system: grasping others’ actions from birth?


Address for correspondence: Hugo Théoret, Département de Psychologie, Université de Montréal, CP 6128, Succ. Centre-Ville, Montréal, QC, H3C 3J7, Canada; e-mail:


In the adult human brain, the presence of a system matching the observation and the execution of actions is well established. This mechanism is thought to rely primarily on the contribution of so-called ‘mirror neurons’, cells that are active when a specific gesture is executed as well as when it is seen or heard. Despite the wealth of evidence detailing the existence of a mirror neuron system (MNS) in the adult brain, little is known about its normal development. Yet, a better understanding of the MNS in infants would be of considerable theoretical and clinical interest, as dysfunctions within the MNS have been demonstrated in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. Arguments in favor of an innate, or very early, mechanism underlying action understanding mainly come from studies of neonatal imitation, the existence of which has been questioned by some. Here, we review evidence suggesting the presence of an MNS in the human child, as well as work that suggests, although indirectly, the existence of a mechanism matching the perception and the execution of actions in the human newborn.