A study from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) provides new evidence about the relationship between brain connectivity and social functions in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study concerns Theory of Mind (ToM), which is the ability to understand one’s own mental state and the mental states of others. The researchers investigated how children with ASD’s ToM skills related to brain connectivity. They discovered that children with ASD have disruptions in the brain’s ToM network, which may explain some of the social deficits in autism.
The study participants—13 children with high-functioning ASD aged 10 to 16 and 13 similarly aged typically developing children—watched a video that tested their ToM abilities. The animated video depicted geometric shapes interacting in ways that could be interpreted as, for example, dancing or encouraging one another. After watching the video, the researchers measured the participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the participants described the thoughts, feelings, and mental states of the shapes they saw in the video.
For children with ASD, the fMRI data demonstrated disruptions in the ToM network’s connectivity at every level, compared to the typically developing children. The disruption was centered on pairs of regions in the ToM network like the medial frontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction. They also found lower synchronization between pairs of regions in the children with ASD compared to the typically developing children.
“Reduced brain activity in ToM-related brain regions and reduced connectivity among these regions in children with autism suggest[s] how deficits in the neurobiological mechanisms can lead to difficulties in cognitive and behavioral functioning. Weaker coordination and communication among core brain areas during social thinking tasks in autism provides evidence for how different brain areas in autism struggle to work together as a team,” stated study author Marcel Just, professor of psychology at CMU.
The study is among relatively few to investigate brain connectivity in children with ASD, instead of adults. The findings may help researchers understand how deficits in ToM develop, which could lead to early interventions for social skills.
This research is published in the journal Molecular Autism.
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