Different brain responses during empathy in autism spectrum disorders versus conduct disorder and callous-unemotional traits

Eduard T Klapwijk, Moji Aghajani, Olivier F Colins, Godfried M Marijnissen, Arne Popma, Natasja D J van Lang, Nic J A van der Wee, Robert R J M Vermeiren
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines 2016, 57 (6): 737-47

BACKGROUND: Deficits in empathy are reported in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and also underlie antisocial behavior of individuals with conduct disorder and callous-unemotional traits (CD/CU+). Many studies suggest that individuals with ASD are typically impaired in cognitive aspects of empathy, and individuals with CD/CU+ typically in affective aspects. In the current study, we compared the neural correlates of cognitive and affective aspects of empathy between youth with ASD and youth with CD/CU+.

METHODS: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to assess boys with ASD (N = 23), boys with CD/CU+ (N = 23), and typically developing (TD) boys (N = 33), aged 15-19 years. Angry and fearful faces were presented and participants were asked to either infer the emotional state from the face (other-task; emotion recognition) or to judge their own emotional response to the face (self-task; emotional resonance).

RESULTS: During emotion recognition, boys with ASD showed reduced responses compared to the other groups in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). During emotional resonance, the CD/CU+ and ASD groups showed reduced amygdala responses compared to the TD controls, boys with ASD showed reduced responses in bilateral hippocampus, and the CD/CU+ boys showed reduced responses in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and anterior insula (AI).

CONCLUSION: Results suggest differential abnormal brain responses associated with specific aspects of empathic functioning in ASD and CD/CU+. Decreased amygdala responses in ASD and CD/CU+ might point to impaired emotion processing in both disorders, whereas reduced vmPFC responses suggest problems in processing cognitive aspects of empathy in ASD. Reduced IFG/AI responses, finally, suggest decreased emotional resonance in CD/CU+.

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