Individuals with autism often experience difficulties with day-to-day interaction and communication, such as interpreting body language, reading facial expressions and understanding others’ thoughts and desires. Although they vary in severity and manifestation, these problems may reflect a fundamental deficit in “theory of mind” — the ability to deduce other people’s beliefs and intentions.
The neural basis for theory of mind is poorly understood, but Rebecca Saxe and her colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are attempting to fill this gap in knowledge using a brain imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Recent studies using fMRI have shown that healthy adults use a distinct set of neural mechanisms to process and use social information, such as body language and facial expressions. Saxe and colleagues plan to use fMRI to identify precise details about the brain regions involved in theory of mind in healthy adults. Once the researchers have characterized the neural mechanisms at work in the healthy brain, they plan to look for brain regions that are over- or under-activated in individuals with autism during social interactions.
The researchers also plan to use fMRI to gauge the effectiveness of two computer-based programs to improve social perception and interaction in individuals with autism: iSET combines a video camera and software that identify and interpret facial expressions and gestures in real time; Mind Reading, an interactive computer program created by noted autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, trains users to recognize a wide variety of emotions.
This study may expand knowledge of the neural mechanisms involved in social cognition and how these mechanisms become defective in autism. The findings may also help identify new targets for behavioral and drug therapies for individuals with autism.