Background: The mind's ability to think about the mind has attracted substantial research interest in cognitive science in recent decades, as 'theory of mind'. No research has attempted to identify the brain basis of this ability, probably because it involves several separate processes. As a first step, we investigated one component process-the ability to recognise mental state terms.
Method: In Experiment 1, we tested a group of children with autism (known to have theory of mind deficits) and a control group of children with mental handicap, for their ability to recognise mental state terms in a word list. This was to test if the mental state recognition task was related to traditional theory of mind tests. In Experiment 2, we investigated if in the normal brain, recognition of mental state terms might be localised. The procedure employed single photon emission computerised tomography (SPECT) in normal adult volunteers. We tested the prediction (based on available neurological and animal lesion studies) that there would be increased activation in the orbito-frontal cortex during this task, relative to a control condition, and relative to an adjacent frontal area (frontal-polar cortex).
Results: In Experiment 1, the group with autism performed significantly worse than the group without autism. In Experiment 2, there was increased cerebral blood flow during the mental state recognition task in the right orbito-frontal cortex relative to the left frontal-polar region.
Conclusions: This simple mental state recognition task appears to relate to theory of mind, in that both are impaired in autism. The SPECT results implicate the orbito-frontal cortex as the basis of this ability.