Autism, Asperger syndrome and brain mechanisms for the attribution of mental states to animated shapes.
Ten able adults with autism or Asperger syndrome and 10 normal volunteers were PET scanned while watching animated sequences. The animations depicted two triangles moving about on a screen in three different conditions: moving randomly, moving in a goal-directed fashion (chasing, fighting), and moving interactively with implied intentions (coaxing, tricking). The last condition frequently elicited descriptions in terms of mental states that viewers attributed to the triangles (mentalizing). The autism group gave fewer and less accurate descriptions of these latter animations, but equally accurate descriptions of the other animations compared with controls. While viewing animations that elicited mentalizing, in contrast to randomly moving shapes, the normal group showed increased activation in a previously identified mentalizing network (medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus at the temporo-parietal junction and temporal poles). The autism group showed less activation than the normal group in all these regions. However, one additional region, extrastriate cortex, which was highly active when watching animations that elicited mentalizing, showed the same amount of increased activation in both groups. In the autism group this extrastriate region showed reduced functional connectivity with the superior temporal sulcus at the temporo-parietal junction, an area associated with the processing of biological motion as well as with mentalizing. This finding suggests a physiological cause for the mentalizing dysfunction in autism: a bottleneck in the interaction between higher order and lower order perceptual processes.