Neurodevelopmental Indices of Theory of Mind and Their Relations to Everyday Social Functioning

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
C. E. Mukerji1,2, S. H. Lincoln1,2, A. V. Torricelli3, N. Kleeman1, S. Hasselmo1, C. I. Hooker4 and C. A. Nelson1,2, (1)Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, (2)Boston Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, (3)Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, (4)Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL
Background: Theory of mind, the capacity to reason about others’ mental states, is a fundamental social cognitive ability affected in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Prior research indicates that the functional specialization of neural mechanisms supporting ToM is related to social cognitive task performance in typically developing (TD) children. Preliminary evidence from a study of adolescents and adults with ASD suggests that activation in the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ), a key node of the ToM network, may be related to symptom severity in ASD. Although influential theories of child development posit that ToM is central to social functioning, the relation between neural ToM mechanisms and the broad spectrum of daily social functioning observed across typical (TD) and atypical child development remains unclear.

Objectives: This study aimed to (a) isolate neural activation specifically elicited by ToM reasoning and (b) investigate, for the first time, the relations between these neural ToM mechanisms and individual variation in children’s daily social functioning. We predicted that school-age TD children would demonstrate enhanced activation in the neural ToM network during mental state reasoning. Moreover, we predicted that activation at key nodes of this ToM network (e.g., rTPJ and precuneus) would be associated with individual variation in children’s social functioning in daily life.  

Methods: Participants were 31 TD children between 9 and 13 years old. Functional neuroimaging (BOLD) data were collected on a 3T Siemens Tim Trio scanner while participants completed a false belief task developed for school-age children. In the experimental (ToM) condition, children listened to vignettes describing social scenarios and then evaluated characters’ beliefs. In the control condition, they listened to non-social scenarios and then made inferences about physical causality. In addition, parents completed a multidimensional interview measure assessing their children’s daily social functioning (Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, 2ndedition).

Results: Whole-brain analyses indicated enhanced activation to ToM reasoning relative to the control task at key nodes of the ToM network: the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ), precuneus, and right anterior superior temporal sulcus (p<.05, FWE-corrected). Controlling for the effects of general cognitive ability (IQ), activity in the precuneus (r=0.51, p=0.035) and rTPJ (r=0.46, p=0.05) correlated with children’s daily social play and leisure functioning. 

Conclusions: Results revealed that, during mental state reasoning, school-age children engage key nodes of a distributed ToM network previously identified in adults. Moreover, our results elucidated key relations between social brain and behavior: activity in the precuneus and rTPJ was associated with daily social functioning in play and leisure activities, such that greater activation was linked to better functioning. These findings indicate that neural ToM mechanisms index variation in children’s everyday social functioning, demonstrating value as a biological metric of functional heterogeneity in child development. Neural activation in the ToM network may also serve as a useful biomarker of social intervention change that may be detectable before meaningful behavioral differences emerge. Ongoing work investigates relations among neural activity in the ToM network, social cognitive ability, and daily social functioning in children with ASD.