Theory of mind difficulties in patients with alcohol dependence: beyond the prefrontal cortex dysfunction hypothesis

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2015 Jun;39(6):980-8. doi: 10.1111/acer.12717.


Background: Previous studies have shown that alcohol-dependent (AD) individuals have difficulties inferring other people's emotion, understanding humor, and detecting a faux pas. This study aimed at further understanding the nature of such "Theory of Mind" (ToM) difficulties.

Methods: A total of 34 recently detoxified AD and 34 paired controls were compared based on 2 nonverbal and video-based false belief tasks. These tasks were designed to identify 3 different types of deficits: (i) a deficit in dealing with the general task demands, (ii) a selective deficit in self-perspective inhibition, and (iii) a deficit in tracking the other person's mental state. (i) and (ii) are compatible with the hypothesis of a prefrontal cortex dysfunction being at the origin of AD individuals' social difficulties, while (iii) would suggest the possible contribution of a dysfunction of the temporo-parietal junction in explaining the social difficulties.

Results: Group analyses highlighted that AD individuals performed worse on the 2 false belief tasks than controls. Individual analyses showed, however, that just under half of the AD individuals were impaired compared to controls. Moreover, most of the AD individuals who were impaired showed a deficit in tracking the other person's belief. This deficit was linked to disease-related factors such as illness duration, average alcohol consumption, and craving but not to general reasoning abilities, depression, anxiety, or demographic variables.

Conclusions: Just under half of the AD individuals tested showed a ToM deficit, and in most cases, the deficit concerned the tracking of other people's mental states. Such a type of deficit has previously been associated with lesions to the temporo-parietal brain areas, indicating that a prefrontal cortex dysfunction may not be the sole origin of the social cognition deficits observed in alcohol dependence.

Keywords: False Belief; Mentalizing; Prefrontal Cortex; Temporo-Parietal Junction; Theory of Mind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognition Disorders / complications
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Theory of Mind*