Neural processing associated with cognitive and affective Theory of Mind in adolescents and adults.
Sebastian CL., Fontaine NM., Bird G., Blakemore SJ., Brito SA., McCrory EJ., Viding E.
Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute thoughts, intentions and beliefs to others. This involves component processes, including cognitive perspective taking (cognitive ToM) and understanding emotions (affective ToM). This study assessed the distinction and overlap of neural processes involved in these respective components, and also investigated their development between adolescence and adulthood. While data suggest that ToM develops between adolescence and adulthood, these populations have not been compared on cognitive and affective ToM domains. Using fMRI with 15 adolescent (aged 11-16 years) and 15 adult (aged 24-40 years) males, we assessed neural responses during cartoon vignettes requiring cognitive ToM, affective ToM or physical causality comprehension (control). An additional aim was to explore relationships between fMRI data and self-reported empathy. Both cognitive and affective ToM conditions were associated with neural responses in the classic ToM network across both groups, although only affective ToM recruited medial/ventromedial PFC (mPFC/vmPFC). Adolescents additionally activated vmPFC more than did adults during affective ToM. The specificity of the mPFC/vmPFC response during affective ToM supports evidence from lesion studies suggesting that vmPFC may integrate affective information during ToM. Furthermore, the differential neural response in vmPFC between adult and adolescent groups indicates developmental changes in affective ToM processing.