The Coffee Run: Uncovering the Secrets Behind Autism

By Christina Cui | Staff Writer | UTS Online (2013-14)

The scent envelopes you before you even get near the cash register of the Mandeville Coffee Cart. The smell of coffee seems particularly strong today, powerful enough to make you think twice about ordering your usual venti Hazelnut Chocolate Latte with extra foam and heavy whipped cream.

Glancing back from the menu, you notice that the barista’s movements seem disjointed, each motion a separate fragment that you have to somehow piece together. It takes a moment for you to realize that his elbow was straightening so that he could reach for the empty cup and even longer for you to interpret his furrowed eyebrows as a sign of his puzzlement. In fact, every detail of your surroundings, from the cool plastic of your credit card to the tide of murmurs behind you, seems to be splintered into a fierce tug-of-war game for your focus.

Such is the world that many of those with autism face every day. Until recently, there have been relatively few cohesive theories on why autism spectrum patients find it challenging to filter all the sensory information they receive while also explaining their difficulties in social situations.

Through the work of research of pioneers such as Dr. James Pineda at UCSD’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, however, more and more details on the underlying causes of autism are being uncovered. In fact, Dr. Pineda’s lab has traced many of the symptoms from your unfortunate coffee run to the malfunctioning of your mirror neurons.

A rather recent neuroscience discovery, mirror neurons fire both when an action is observed and when an action is carried out. For example, watching your barista grasp the empty coffee cup will fire the same set of neurons if you were to do the same (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia).

Such a pathway is useful in streamlining the process of understanding other people’s actions: rather than forcing our mind to be constantly deducing meaning from movement, our neurons can simply synthesize the same movements and make judgments from there (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia). Those whose mirror neurons are not as flexible must learn to use logic to piece together individual actions into a coherent meaning.

The most crucial application of our mirror neuron pathway is within social interactions. A particular brain wave, known as the Mu rhythm, has begun to emerge as one of the benchmark indicators of our mirror neuron pathway and is being standardized as a determining factor in one’s ability to empathize.

sq article photo 1

1. Mu oscillation dampening in mirror neurons in normal subjects.
From: Pineda, James A. “Social Cognition: Autism, Mirror Neurons and Mu Rhythms.” University of California, San Diego. 26 November, 2013

Found in the sensorimotor cortex, the Mu rhythm is an 8-13 Hz oscillation seen in brain’s electrical signals (Bernier, Dawson and Webb). When we witness others doing an action, the amplitude of this oscillation is dampened. When we commit to the same action ourselves, the waves are dampened even further (Image 1).

In autistic children, however, observing others’ actions do not decrease Mu rhythm amplitudes as much as in controls; in other words, it is difficult for these brains to simulate others’ actions (Oberman, Ramachandran and Pineda). The findings from this series of studies provide solid theoretical backing for many of the difficulties that autistic children have in interpreting social and visual cues.

How transcranial magnetic stimulation is performed on a patient. Image from National Institute of Mental Health.

How transcranial magnetic stimulation is performed on a patient.
Image from National Institute of Mental Health.

Dr. Pineda takes this hypothesis a step further by utilizing the transcranial magnetic stimulator (TMS, shown in Image 2) to temporarily alter particular regions of the human brain in order to understand the world from an autistic perspective (Keukena, Hardie and Dorn).

After normal healthy adults underwent the stimulation, there was a marked decrease in their reaction time and accuracy in pinpointing particular emotions, indicating that the malfunctioning Mu fluctuations are, if not directly resultant, correlated to the neuronal connections in the brain (Keukena, Hardie and Dorn). It is logical to conclude that the flexibility of Mu rhythms is a deciding factor in how easily any particular person finds navigating social situations.

The evidence uncovered on Mu rhythms and mirror neurons is not just useful theoretically; more importantly, it opens up an entire new pathway for treatment. If autistic children had opportunities to control and practice fluctuating their Mu rhythms, it could potentially lead to improvement in the mirror neuron system.

Pineda and his lab team designed a video game to assist autistic children in strengthening their Mu rhythm responses through neurofeedback, or the process through which brain behavior is altered through training brain waves (Pineda, Juavinett and Datko). After a little less than 6 months of training, there was marked improvement in parental assessment of their child’s behavior (Pineda, Brang and Hetch), a strong indication for this form of treatment.
These findings bode well for the autistic community, shedding light on both functional and therapeutic possibilities.

As we become more and more apt at seeing the world from this different  point of view, we can not only better understand other’s difficulties, but we also are able to refine the existing theories about our mind brain relationship. Who knew that a coffee run would be so insightful?


  1. Bernier, R., et al. “EEG mu rhythm and imitation impairments in individuals with autism spectrum disorder.” Brain and Cognition 64.3 (2007): 228-237.
  2. Keukena, M.C., et al. “The role of the left inferior frontal gyrus in social perception: An rTMS study.” Brain Research 1383 (2011): 196-205. National Institute of Mental Health. 2014.
  3. Brain Stimulation Therapies. Web. 18 February 2014.
  4. Oberman, Lindsay M., Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and James A. Pineda. “Modulation of mu suppression in children with autism spectrum disorders in response to familiar or unfamiliar stimuli: The mirror neuron hypothesis.” NeuroPsychologia 46 (2008): 1558–1565.
  5. Pineda, J. A. , et al. “Positive behavioral and electrophysiological changes following neurofeedback training in children with autism.” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 2.3 (2008): 557-581.
  6. Pineda, James A., Ashley Juavinett and Michael Datko. “Rationale for Neurofeedback Training in Children with Autism.” Comprehensive Guide to Autism. Springer, 2014. 439-460.
  7. Pineda, James A. “Social Cognition: Autism, Mirror Neurons and Mu Rhythms.” University of California, San Diego. 26 November, 2013.
  8. Rizzolatti, Giacomo and Corrado Sinigaglia. “The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 11 (2010): 264-274.


I am a second year, physiology and neuroscience major at Muir College. My academic interests are in neurological disorders, especially developmental disorders such as autism, and I hope to carry this passion to medical school. Outside of class, I enjoy playing the piano, making (eating) cookies and singing--in a top of my lungs, windows down kind of way. And, thanks to UCSD, I've found a love for spur of the moment beach trips and a new appreciation for sleep.