The role of the amygdala in naturalistic mentalising in typical development and in autism spectrum disorder

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Abstract

Background

The substantial discrepancy between mentalising in experimental settings v. real-life social interactions hinders the understanding of the neural basis of real-life social cognition and of social impairments in psychiatric disorders.

Aims

To determine the neural mechanisms underlying naturalistic mentalising in individuals with and without autism spectrum disorder.

Method

We investigated mentalising with a new video-based functional magnetic resonance imaging task in 20 individuals with autism spectrum disorder and 22 matched healthy controls.

Results

Naturalistic mentalising implicated regions of the traditional mentalising network (medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction), and additionally the insula and amygdala. Moreover, amygdala activity predicted implicit mentalising performance on an independent behavioural task. Compared with controls, the autism spectrum disorder group did not show differences in neural activity within classical mentalising regions. They did, however, show reduced amygdala activity and a reduced correlation between amygdala activity and mentalising accuracy on the behavioural task, compared with controls.

Conclusions

These findings highlight the crucial role of the amygdala in making accurate implicit mental state inferences in typical development and in the social cognitive impairments of individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

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