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    Neuronal correlates of theory of mind and empathy: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study in a nonverbal task

    Völlm, Birgit A., Taylor, Alexander N.W., Richardson, Paul, Corcoran, Rhiannon, Stirling, John D., McKier, Shane, Deakin, John F.W. and Elliott, Rebecca (2005) Neuronal correlates of theory of mind and empathy: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study in a nonverbal task. NeuroImage, 29 (1). pp. 90-98. ISSN 1095-9572

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    Abstract

    Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to attribute mental states to others, and empathy, the ability to infer emotional experiences, are important processes in social cognition. Brain imaging studies in healthy subjects have described a brain system involving medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus and temporal pole in ToM processing. Studies investigating networks associated with empathic responding also suggest involvement of temporal and frontal lobe regions. In this fMRI study, we used a cartoon task derived from Sarfati et al. (1997) [Sarfati, Y., Hardy-Bayle, M.C., Besche, C., Widlocher, D. 1997. Attribution of intentions to others in people with schizophrenia: a non-verbal exploration with comic strips. Schizophrenia Research 25, 199-209.]with both ToM and empathy stimuli in order to allow comparison of brain activations in these two processes. Results of 13 right-handed, healthy, male volunteers were included. Functional images were acquired using a 1.5 T Phillips Gyroscan. Our results confirmed that ToM and empathy stimuli are associated with overlapping but distinct neuronal networks. Common areas of activation included the medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction and temporal poles. Compared to the empathy condition, ToM stimuli revealed increased activations in lateral orbitofrontal cortex, middle frontal gyrus, cuneus and superior temporal gyrus. Empathy, on the other hand, was associated with enhanced activations of paracingulate, anterior and posterior cingulate and amygdala. We therefore suggest that ToM and empathy both rely on networks associated with making inferences about mental states of others. However, empathic responding requires the additional recruitment of networks involved in emotional processing. These results have implications for our understanding of disorders characterized by impairments of social cognition, such as autism and psychopathy.

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