Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition with key deficits in social functioning. It is widely assumed that the biological underpinnings of social impairment are neurofunctional alterations in the "social brain," a neural circuitry involved in inferring the mental state of a social partner. However, previous evidence comes from small-scale studies and findings have been mixed. We therefore carried out the to-date largest study on neural correlates of mentalizing in ASD.
Methods: As part of the Longitudinal European Autism Project, we performed functional magnetic resonance imaging at six European sites in a large, well-powered, and deeply phenotyped sample of individuals with ASD (N = 205) and typically developing (TD) individuals (N = 189) aged 6 to 30 years. We presented an animated shapes task to assess and comprehensively characterize social brain activation during mentalizing. We tested for effects of age, diagnosis, and their association with symptom measures, including a continuous measure of autistic traits.
Results: We observed robust effects of task. Within the ASD sample, autistic traits were moderately associated with functional activation in one of the key regions of the social brain, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. However, there were no significant effects of diagnosis on task performance and no effects of age and diagnosis on social brain responses. Besides a lack of mean group differences, our data provide no evidence for meaningful differences in the distribution of brain response measures. Extensive control analyses suggest that the lack of case-control differences was not due to a variety of potential confounders.
Conclusions: Contrary to prior reports, this large-scale study does not support the assumption that altered social brain activation during mentalizing forms a common neural marker of ASD, at least with the paradigm we employed. Yet, autistic individuals show socio-behavioral deficits. Our work therefore highlights the need to interrogate social brain function with other brain measures, such as connectivity and network-based approaches, using other paradigms, or applying complementary analysis approaches to assess individual differences in this heterogeneous condition.
Keywords: Animated shapes; Autism; Autism spectrum disorder; Development; Mentalizing; Multi-site; Social brain; Theory of mind; fMRI.