Response patterns in the developing social brain are organized by social and emotion features and disrupted in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder

Hilary Richardson, H. Gweon, D. Dodell-Feder, C. Malloy, H. Pelton, B. Keil, N. Kanwisher, R. Saxe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Adults and children recruit a specific network of brain regions when engaged in “Theory of Mind” (ToM) reasoning. Recently, fMRI studies of adults have used multivariate analyses to provide a deeper characterization of responses in these regions. These analyses characterize representational distinctions within the social domain, rather than comparing responses across preferred (social) and non-preferred stimuli. Here, we conducted opportunistic multivariate analyses in two previously collected datasets (Experiment 1: n = 20 5–11 year old children and n = 37 adults; Experiment 2: n = 76 neurotypical and n = 29 5–12 year old children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)) in order to characterize the structure of representations in the developing social brain, and in order to discover if this structure is disrupted in ASD. Children listened to stories that described characters' mental states (Mental), non-mentalistic social information (Social), and causal events in the environment (Physical), while undergoing fMRI. We measured the extent to which neural responses in ToM brain regions were organized according to two ToM-relevant models: 1) a condition model, which reflected the experimenter-generated condition labels, and 2) a data-driven emotion model, which organized stimuli according to their emotion content. We additionally constructed two control models based on linguistic and narrative features of the stories. In both experiments, the two ToM-relevant models outperformed the control models. The fit of the condition model increased with age in neurotypical children. Moreover, the fit of the condition model to neural response patterns was reduced in the RTPJ in children diagnosed with ASD. These results provide a first glimpse into the conceptual structure of information in ToM brain regions in childhood, and suggest that there are real, stable features that predict responses in these regions in children. Multivariate analyses are a promising approach for sensitively measuring conceptual and neural developmental change and individual differences in ToM. © 2019 Elsevier Ltd
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-29
Number of pages18
Early online date20 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • development
  • multivoxel pattern analyses
  • Representational Similarity analyses
  • Theory of mind
  • adult


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