Early and late neural correlates of mentalizing: ALE meta-analyses in adults, children and adolescents

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2022 Apr 1;17(4):351-366. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsab105.


The ability to understand mental states of others is referred to as mentalizing and enabled by our Theory of Mind. This social skill relies on brain regions comprising the mentalizing network as robustly observed in adults but also in a growing number of developmental studies. We summarized and compared neuroimaging evidence in children/adolescents and adults during mentalizing using coordinate-based activation likelihood estimation meta-analyses to inform about brain regions consistently or differentially engaged across age categories. Adults (N = 5286) recruited medial prefrontal and middle/inferior frontal cortices, precuneus, temporoparietal junction and middle temporal gyri during mentalizing, which were functionally connected to bilateral inferior/superior parietal lobule and thalamus/striatum. Conjunction and contrast analyses revealed that children and adolescents (N = 479) recruit similar but fewer regions within core mentalizing regions. Subgroup analyses revealed an early continuous engagement of middle medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and right temporoparietal junction in younger children (8-11 years) and adolescents (12-18 years). Adolescents additionally recruited the left temporoparietal junction and middle/inferior temporal cortex. Overall, the observed engagement of the medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and right temporoparietal junction during mentalizing across all ages reflects an early specialization of some key regions of the social brain.

Keywords: activation likelihood estimation; children; development; functional neuroimaging; mentalizing; theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mentalization*
  • Theory of Mind* / physiology