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Theory of mind and the right cerebral hemisphere: Refining the scope of impairment

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The neuropsychological and functional characterisation of mental state attribution (“theory of mind” (ToM)) has been the focus of several recent studies. The literature contains opposing views on the functional specificity of ToM and on the neuroanatomical structures most relevant to ToM. Studies with brain-lesioned patients have consistently found ToM deficits associated with unilateral right hemisphere damage (RHD). Also, functional imaging performed with non-brain-injured adults implicates several specific neural regions, many of which are located in the right hemisphere. The present study examined the separation of ToM impairment from other deficits associated with brain injury. We tested 11 patients with unilateral right hemisphere damage (RHD) and 20 normal controls (NC) on a humour rating task, an emotion rating task, a graded (first-order, second-order) ToM task with non-mentalistic control questions, and two ancillary measures: (1) Trails A and B, in order to assess overall level of impairment and set-shifting abilities associated with executive function, and (2) a homograph reading task to assess central coherence skills. Our findings indicate that RHD can result in a functionally specific deficit in attributing intentional states, particularly those involving second-order attributions. Performance on ToM questions was not reliably related to measures of cognitive impairment; however, performance on non-ToM control questions was reliably predicted by Trails A and B. We also discuss individual RHD patients' performance with attention to lesion locus. Our findings suggest that damage to the areas noted as specialised in neuroimaging studies may not affect ToM performance, and underscore the necessity of combining lesion and imaging studies in determining functional-anatomical relations.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Tufts University, Boston, MA, USA 2: University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada 3: University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, Canada 4: Boston College, MA, USA 5: King's College, London, UK

Publication date: April 1, 2006

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