The Cognitive and Neural Basis of Atypical Social and Moral Cognition in High Functioning Autism

Liane Young, Ph.D.

Boston College

Grant Program:

David Mahoney Neuroimaging Program

Funded in:

September 2011, for 3 years

Funding Amount:


Lay Summary

Imaging may reveal how the brain interferes with moral judgment in adults with autism

This study will use fMRI and behavioral measures to determine whether highly functioning adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have deficits in their abilities to reason about other people’s mental states (beliefs and intentions) and to identify the neural bases for these deficits.

Marred social interactions and communication are hallmarks of ASD. Children with autism are slow to develop the ability to reason about someone else’s beliefs and intentions, a process called “Theory of Mind” or ToM.  As adults, those who are highly functioning with ASD typically score well on behavioral tests that assess ToM. These “false belief” tests require that a person understand that another person’s belief is different from his own, and false. Yet, these adults show impairments on tests of moral judgment. The tests rely on an individual’s capacity to place more emphasis on intention and less on outcome. So, for instance, a healthy adult would judge a failed attempt to harm as worse than accidental harms, but an ASD adult would not.  The investigators speculate that ASD adults develop compensatory mechanisms that enable them to score well on false belief tests, but that these mechanisms do not enable them to compensate on moral judgment tests. Additionally, the investigators previously found in healthy adults that when electrical activity was disrupted in ToM-associated brain regions (located an inch or so above the right ear), their moral judgments were impaired.

The investigators also speculate, therefore, that adults with ASD have atypical activity in these ToM-associated brain regions. They have three specific hypotheses that they will test in 40 highly functioning adults with ASD compared to 40 healthy adult participants, who undergo moral judgment tests and fMRI. The investigators hypothesize the following will occur in the ASD adults. First, moral judgment tasks will provide a sensitive test of their enduring deficits of ToM.  Second, their atypical judgment will extend to other key aspects of social and moral cognition, showing for instance reduced group stereotypes (such as race bias) and reduced comparisons of themselves with others (reduced envy, or reduced pleasure in a competitor’s misfortune). Third, imaging will reveal impaired functioning in the neural processes in specific brain regions involved in ToM. Imaging will show whether ToM regions demonstrate: 1) reduced activation or functional selectivity; 2) reduced functional connectivity; and 3) reduced pattern discrimination for key dimensions of mental state (justified versus unjustified beliefs, intentional versus accidental acts).

Significance: The findings may lead to a better understanding of remaining neural deficits in highly functioning adults with ASD, and to improved diagnostic behavioral and imaging tests. Moreover, these tests then can be used to measure the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions designed to improve moral judgment capacities in highly functioning adults with ASD.