The ability of normal children and adults to attribute independent mental states to self and others in order to explain and predict behaviour ("theory of mind") has been a focus of much recent research. Autism is a biologically based disorder which appears to be characterised by a specific impairment in this "mentalising" process. The present paper reports a functional neuroimaging study with positron emission tomography in which we studied brain activity in normal volunteers while they performed story comprehension tasks necessitating the attribution of mental states. The resultant brain activity was compared with that measured in two control tasks: "physical" stories which did not require this mental attribution, and passages of unlinked sentences. Both story conditions, when compared to the unlinked sentences, showed significantly increased regional cerebral blood flow in the following regions: the temporal poles bilaterally, the left superior temporal gyrus and the posterior cingulate cortex. Comparison of the "theory of mind" stories with "physical" stores revealed a specific pattern of activation associated with mental state attribution: it was only this task which produced activation in the medial frontal gyrus on the left (Brodmann's area 8). This comparison also showed significant activation in the posterior cingulate cortex. These surprisingly clear-cut findings are discussed in relation to previous studies of brain activation during story comprehension. The localisation of brain regions involved in normal attribution of mental states and contextual problem solving is feasible and may have implication for the neural basis of autism.
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