Specialization of right temporo-parietal junction for mentalizing and its relation to social impairments in autism
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Over the last 25 years, "mindblindness" (deficits in representing mental states) has been one of the primary explanations behind the hallmark social-communication difficulties in autism spectrum conditions (ASC). However, highlighting neural systems responsible for mindblindness and their relation to variation in social impairments has remained elusive. In this study we show that one of the neural systems responsible for mindblindness in ASC and its relation to social impairments is the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ). Twenty-nine adult males with ASC and 33 age and IQ-matched Controls were scanned with fMRI while making reflective mentalizing or physical judgments about themselves or another person. Regions of interest within mentalizing circuitry were examined for between-group differences in activation during mentalizing about self and other and correlations with social symptom severity. RTPJ was the only mentalizing region that responded atypically in ASC. In Controls, RTPJ was selectively more responsive to mentalizing than physical judgments. This selectivity for mentalizing was not apparent in ASC and generalized across both self and other. Selectivity of RTPJ for mentalizing was also associated with the degree of reciprocal social impairment in ASC. These results lend support to the idea that RTPJ is one important neural system behind mindblindness in ASC. Understanding the contribution of RTPJ in conjunction with other neural systems responsible for other component processes involved in social cognition will be illuminating in fully explaining the hallmark social-communication difficulties of autism. © 2011 Elsevier Inc.