Neural correlates of theory of mind in typically-developing youth: Influence of sex, age and callous-unemotional traits

Yidian Gao, Jack C. Rogers, Ruth Pauli, Roberta Clanton, Rosalind Baker, Philippa Birch, Lisandra Ferreira, Abigail Brown, Christine M. Freitag, Graeme Fairchild, Pia Rotshtein, Stephane A. De Brito

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15 Citations (SciVal)


Theory of mind (ToM), or the ability to infer and predict the intentions, thoughts and beliefs of others, involves cognitive perspective taking (cognitive ToM/cToM) and understanding emotions (affective ToM/aToM). While behavioral evidence indicates that ToM is influenced by sex and age, no study has examined the influence of these variables on the neural correlates of cToM and aToM in late childhood/adolescence. Using fMRI with 35 typically-developing youths (aged 9-18 years, 12 males), we investigated the influence of sex and age on the neural correlates of cToM and aToM. We also examined how callous-unemotional traits, indexing a lack of empathy, were related to brain responses during aToM. Across both conditions, we found convergent activity in ToM network regions, such as superior temporal sulcus/temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and precuneus across males and females, but males recruited the left TPJ significantly more than females during cToM. During aToM, age was negatively correlated with brain responses in frontal, temporal and posterior midline regions, while callous-unemotional traits were positively correlated with right anterior insula responses. These results provide the first evidence in youth that sex influences the neural correlates of cToM, while age and callous-unemotional traits are specifically related to brain responses during aToM.

Original languageEnglish
Article number16216
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The present study is part of the FemNAT-CD consortium (Neurobiology and Treatment of Adolescent Female Conduct Disorder, coordinator Christine M. Freitag). This collaborative project is funded by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Health Program with Grant Agreement No. 602407. Yidian Gao is a Ph.D. student funded by the China Scholarship Council  and the the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of Central South University (No. 2016zzts140). Ruth Pauli is a Ph.D. student funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)’s Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership (MIBTP). We would like to thank our participants, their families, and the numerous teachers, clinicians, social workers, foster carers and other professionals who gave their time generously to assist with recruitment. We also wish to thank Prof. Essi Viding and Dr. Catherine L. Sebastian for sharing the task scripts and stimuli used in this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, The Author(s).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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