Children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are characterized by an impaired Theory of Mind (ToM). Recent evidence suggested that two aspects of ToM (cognitive ToM versus affective ToM) are differentially impaired in individuals with ASD. In this study, we examined the neural correlates of cognitive and affective ToM in children and adolescents with ASD compared to typically developing children (TDCs). Twelve children and adolescents with ASD and 12 age, IQ matched TDCs participated in this functional MRI study. The ToM task involved the attribution of cognitive and affective mental states to a cartoon character based on verbal and eye-gaze cues. In cognitive ToM tasks, ASD participants recruited the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and superior temporal gyrus (STG) to a greater extent than did TDCs. In affective ToM tasks, both ASD and TDC participants showed more activation in the insula and other subcortical regions than in cognitive ToM tasks. Correlational analysis revealed that greater activation of the mPFC/ACC regions was associated with less symptom severity in ASD patients. In sum, our study suggests that the recruitment of additional prefrontal resources can compensate for the successful behavioral performance in the ToM task in ASD participants.
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