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Contagious yawning and why it matters
September 12, 2017, 11:53 am

Experts at the University of Nottingham in the UK have published research that suggests the human propensity for contagious yawning is triggered automatically by primitive reflexes in an area of the brain known as the primary motor cortex that is responsible for motor function.

The findings show that our ability to resist yawning when someone else near us yawns is limited, and that our urge to yawn is increased if we are instructed to resist yawning. Importantly, they also discovered that the urge to yawn is individual to each one of us.

Contagious yawning is triggered involuntarily when we observe another person yawn and is clinically seen as a form of echo-phenomena, such as the automatic imitation of another's words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia).

To test the link between motor excitability and the neural basis for contagious yawning, the researchers used trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). They recruited 36 adults to help with their study. These volunteers viewed video clips showing someone else yawning and were instructed to either resist yawning or to allow themselves to yawn.

The participants were videoed throughout, and their yawns and stifled yawns were counted. In addition, the intensity of each participant's perceived urge to yawn was continuously recorded.

Using electrical stimulation the researchers were also able to increase the urge to yawn among participants.

The TMS measures demonstrated that each individual’s propensity for contagious yawning was determined by cortical excitability and physiological inhibition of the primary motor cortex.

Researchers believe their findings may be particularly important in understanding further the association between motor excitability and the occurrence of echo-phenomena in a wide range of clinical conditions such as epilepsy, dementia, autism, and Tourette syndrome. Realizing how alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders would allow scientists to use TMS and modulate imbalances in brain networks.


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