Selective disruption of sociocognitive structural brain networks in autism and alexithymia.
Bernhardt BC., Valk SL., Silani G., Bird G., Frith U., Singer T.
Autism spectrum conditions (ASC) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by abnormal social cognition. A core feature of ASC is disrupted Theory of Mind (ToM), our ability to take the mental perspective of others. ASC is also associated with alexithymia, a trait characterized by altered emotional interoception and empathy. Here, we applied structural MRI covariance analysis to assess whether ASC and alexithymia differentially affect structural brain networks associated with sociocognitive and socioaffective functions. Based on previous functional MRI findings, we expected disrupted ToM networks (centered on dorsomedial prefontal cortex [dmPFC], and temporo-parietal junction [TPJ]) in ASC, while alexithymia would affect networks centered on fronto-insular cortex (FI), regions associated with interoception of emotion and empathy. Relative to controls, ASC indeed showed reduced covariance in networks centered on dmPFC and TPJ, but not within FI networks. Irrespective of ASC, covariance was negatively modulated by alexithymia in networks extending from FI to posterior regions. Network findings were complemented by self-reports, indicating decreased perspective taking but normal empathic concern in ASC. Our results show divergent effects of ASC and alexithymia on inter-regional structural networks, suggesting that networks mediating socioaffective processes may be separable from networks mediating sociocognitive processing.