Schizophrenia and Autism as Contrasting Minds: Neural Evidence for the Hypo-Hyper-Intentionality Hypothesis

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Both schizophrenia (SCZ) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are characterized by mentalizing problems and associated neural dysfunction of the social brain. However, the deficits in mental state attribution are somehow opposed: Whereas patients with SCZ tend to over-attribute intentions to agents and physical events (“hyper-intentionality”), patients with autism treat people as devoid of intentions (“hypo-intentionality”). Here we aimed to investigate whether this hypo-hyper-intentionality hypothesis can be supported by neural evidence during a mentalizing task. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we investigated the neural responses and functional connectivity during reading others intention. Scanning was performed in 23 individuals with ASD, 18 with paranoid SCZ and 23 gender and IQ matched control subjects. Both clinical groups showed reduced brain activation compared to controls for the contrast intentional vs physical information processing in left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) and ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) for SCZ, and right pSTS in ASD. As predicted, these effects were caused in a group specific way: Relative increased activation for physical information processing in SCZ that was also correlated with positive PANNS score and relative decreased activation for intentional information processing in ASD. Additionally, we could demonstrate opposed connectivity patterns between the right pSTS and vMPFC in the clinical groups, ie, increased for SCZ, decreased for ASD. These findings represent opposed neural signatures in key regions of the social brain as predicted by the hyper-hypo-intentionality hypothesis.

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