Atypical cross talk between mentalizing and mirror neuron networks in autism spectrum disorder

Importance: Converging evidence indicates that brain abnormalities in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) involve atypical network connectivity, but it is unclear whether altered connectivity is especially prominent in brain networks that participate in social cognition.

Objective: To investigate whether adolescents with ASD show altered functional connectivity in 2 brain networks putatively impaired in ASD and involved in social processing, theory of mind (ToM) and mirror neuron system (MNS).

Design, setting, and participants: Cross-sectional study using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging involving 25 adolescents with ASD between the ages of 11 and 18 years and 25 typically developing adolescents matched for age, handedness, and nonverbal IQ.

Main outcomes and measures: Statistical parametric maps testing the degree of whole-brain functional connectivity and social functioning measures.

Results: Relative to typically developing controls, participants with ASD showed a mixed pattern of both over- and underconnectivity in the ToM network, which was associated with greater social impairment. Increased connectivity in the ASD group was detected primarily between the regions of the MNS and ToM, and was correlated with sociocommunicative measures, suggesting that excessive ToM-MNS cross talk might be associated with social impairment. In a secondary analysis comparing a subset of the 15 participants with ASD with the most severe symptomology and a tightly matched subset of 15 typically developing controls, participants with ASD showed exclusive overconnectivity effects in both ToM and MNS networks, which were also associated with greater social dysfunction.

Conclusions and relevance: Adolescents with ASD showed atypically increased functional connectivity involving the mentalizing and mirror neuron systems, largely reflecting greater cross talk between the 2. This finding is consistent with emerging evidence of reduced network segregation in ASD and challenges the prevailing theory of general long-distance underconnectivity in ASD. This excess ToM-MNS connectivity may reflect immature or aberrant developmental processes in 2 brain networks involved in understanding of others, a domain of impairment in ASD. Further, robust links with sociocommunicative symptoms of ASD implicate atypically increased ToM-MNS connectivity in social deficits observed in ASD.