Previous studies have shown that children start making accurate predictions in the false belief test around age 4 — but this happens much later, if ever, in autistic children.
In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look for a link between the development of theory of mind and changes in neural activity in the TPJ. They studied 20 children, ranging from 5 to 11 years old.
Each child participated in two sets of experiments. First, the child was scanned in the MRI machine as he or she listened to different types of stories. One type focused on people’s mental states, another also focused on people but only on their physical appearances or actions, and a third type of story focused on physical objects.
The researchers measured activity across the brain as the children listened to different stories. By subtracting neural activity as they listen to stories about physical states from activity as they listen to stories about people’s mental states, the researchers can determine which brain regions are exclusive to interpreting people’s mental states.
In younger children, both the left and right TPJ were active in response to stories about people’s mental states, but they were also active when the children listened to stories about people’s appearances or actions. However, in older children, both regions became more specifically tuned to interpreting people’s thoughts and emotions, and were no longer responsive to people’s appearances or actions.
For the second task, done outside of the scanner, the researchers gave children tests similar to the classic Sally-Anne test, as well as harder questions that required making moral judgments, to measure their theory-of-mind abilities. They found that the degree to which activity in the right TPJ was specific to others’ mental states correlated with the children’s performance in theory-of-mind tasks.
Kristin Lagattuta, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, says the paper makes an important contribution to understanding how theory of mind develops in older children. “Getting more insight into the neural basis of the behavioral development we’re seeing at these ages is exciting,” says Lagattuta, who was not involved in the research.
In an ongoing study of autistic children undergoing the same type of tests, the researchers hope to learn more about the neural basis of the theory-of-mind impairments seen in autistic children.
“So little is known about differences in neural mechanisms that contribute to these kinds of impairments,” Gweon says. “Understanding the developmental changes in brain regions related to theory of mind is going to be critical to think of measures that can help them in the real world.”
The research was funded by the Ellison Medical Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the John Merck Scholars Program, a National Science Foundation Career Award and an Ewha 21st Century Scholarship.