International Meeting for Autism Research: The Neural Basis of Pronoun Selection in Autism

The Neural Basis of Pronoun Selection in Autism

Friday, May 21, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
3:00 PM
A. Mizuno , Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Y. Liu , Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
D. L. Williams , Department of Speech Language Pathology, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA
T. A. Keller , Psychology, Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
N. J. Minshew , Psychiatry and Neurology--Center for Excellence in Autism Research, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, PA
M. A. Just , Psychology, Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Background: Personal pronouns, such as ‘I’ and ‘you,’ are unfixed labels which require a mapping to their referent that is contingent who is using them.  Atypical production of pronominal expressions has been reported in children with autism (referring themselves with the pronoun “you”), but the underlying neural basis has not been understood, nor has the phenomenon been studied in adults with autism.

Objectives: The aim of the current study was to compare the brain activation pattern and functional connectivity of adults with high functioning autism and controls using fMRI in a perspective-taking task which requires reversing personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ depending on who is referring.

Methods: Participants were 15 adults with high-functioning autism and 15 matched neurotypical adults. In one condition of the perspective-taking task, participants were asked to designate generate a response from either a first- or second-person perspective. In the other condition, they were asked to designate the person who was facing to the object. Both conditions used proper names as an additional control for the use of pronouns. The main condition of interest required participants to reverse a pronoun, such as responding with “I” when asked about “you.”

Results: Both groups exhibited similarly distributed brain activations across cortical regions. However, for the pronoun reversal conditions, the group comparison indicated greater activation for the autism group, particularly in the right posterior temporal and the frontal areas. The autism group also showed reliably lower functional connectivity than the control group for the frontal-temporal and frontal-parietal connections in the pronoun reversal condition, as well as significantly increased response time.


Updating of a referential reference (a deictic expression) constituted a larger challenge for adults with high-functioning autism (whose verbal IQ is within the normal range) than for controls. The findings suggest that diminished frontal-posterior collaboration may be that source of lower performance in producing a perspective shift in autism. The loci of the network may implicate an interaction of three functional networks. In addition to the Theory of Mind network, involving in making an inference of an other’s mental state, the Mirror Neuron System may contribute to cognitive mapping for self-and-other relationships, and executive system may provide the ability to adaptively monitor the appropriate pronominal referent (‘I’ versus ‘you’ depending on who is referring). The coordinated activity of the cortical regions in these networks may constitute a “perspective-taking network,” and the disruption of the network may explain atypical social communication and pragmatic usage of language in autism.

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