Socio-Cognitive Phenotypes Differentially Modulate Large-Scale Structural Covariance Networks

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Functional neuroimaging studies have suggested the existence of 2 largely distinct social cognition networks, one for theory of mind (taking others’ cognitive perspective) and another for empathy (sharing others’ affective states). To address whether these networks can also be dissociated at the level of brain structure, we combined behavioral phenotyping across multiple socio-cognitive tasks with 3-Tesla MRI cortical thickness and structural covariance analysis in 270 healthy adults, recruited across 2 sites. Regional thickness mapping only provided partial support for divergent substrates, highlighting that individual differences in empathy relate to left insular-opercular thickness while no correlation between thickness and mentalizing scores was found. Conversely, structural covariance analysis showed clearly divergent network modulations by socio-cognitive and -affective phenotypes. Specifically, individual differences in theory of mind related to structural integration between temporo-parietal and dorsomedial prefrontal regions while empathy modulated the strength of dorsal anterior insula networks. Findings were robust across both recruitment sites, suggesting generalizability. At the level of structural network embedding, our study provides a double dissociation between empathy and mentalizing. Moreover, our findings suggest that structural substrates of higher-order social cognition are reflected rather in interregional networks than in the the local anatomical markup of specific regions per se.

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