Atypical neural self-representation in autism
Lombardo, M. V., Chakrabarti, B., Bullmore, E. T., Sadek, S. A., Pasco, G., Wheelwright, S. J., Suckling, J. and Baron-Cohen, S. (2010) Atypical neural self-representation in autism. Brain : a journal of neurology, 133 (Pt 2). pp. 611-24. ISSN 1460-2156
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1093/brain/awp306
The 'self' is a complex multidimensional construct deeply embedded and in many ways defined by our relations with the social world. Individuals with autism are impaired in both self-referential and other-referential social cognitive processing. Atypical neural representation of the self may be a key to understanding the nature of such impairments. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging we scanned adult males with an autism spectrum condition and age and IQ-matched neurotypical males while they made reflective mentalizing or physical judgements about themselves or the British Queen. Neurotypical individuals preferentially recruit the middle cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in response to self compared with other-referential processing. In autism, ventromedial prefrontal cortex responded equally to self and other, while middle cingulate cortex responded more to other-mentalizing than self-mentalizing. These atypical responses occur only in areas where self-information is preferentially processed and does not affect areas that preferentially respond to other-referential information. In autism, atypical neural self-representation was also apparent via reduced functional connectivity between ventromedial prefrontal cortex and areas associated with lower level embodied representations, such as ventral premotor and somatosensory cortex. Furthermore, the magnitude of neural self-other distinction in ventromedial prefrontal cortex was strongly related to the magnitude of early childhood social impairments in autism. Individuals whose ventromedial prefrontal cortex made the largest distinction between mentalizing about self and other were least socially impaired in early childhood, while those whose ventromedial prefrontal cortex made little to no distinction between mentalizing about self and other were the most socially impaired in early childhood. These observations reveal that the atypical organization of neural circuitry preferentially coding for self-information is a key mechanism at the heart of both self-referential and social impairments in autism.