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PLoS One. 2008;3(12):e3890. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003890. Epub 2008 Dec 8.

Prefrontal cortex glutamate correlates with mental perspective-taking.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Charité University Medicine Berlin, Campus Mitte, Berlin, Germany. christiane.montag@charite.de



Dysfunctions in theory of mind and empathic abilities have been suggested as core symptoms in major psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and autism. Since self monitoring, perspective taking and empathy have been linked to prefrontal (PFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) function, neurotransmitter variations in these areas may account for normal and pathological variations of these functions. Converging evidence indicates an essential role of glutamatergic neurotransmission in psychiatric diseases with pronounced deficits in empathy. However, the role of the glutamate system for different dimensions of empathy has not been investigated so far.


Absolute concentrations of cerebral glutamate in the ACC, left dorsolateral PFC and left hippocampus were determined by 3-tesla proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) in 17 healthy individuals. Three dimensions of empathy were estimated by a self-rating questionnaire, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). Linear regression analysis showed that dorsolateral PFC glutamate concentration was predicted by IRI factor "perspective taking" (T = -2.710, p = 0.018; adjusted alpha-level of 0.017, Bonferroni) but not by "empathic concern" or "personal distress". No significant relationship between IRI subscores and the glutamate levels in the ACC or left hippocampus was detected.


This is the first study to investigate the role of the glutamate system for dimensions of theory of mind and empathy. Results are in line with recent concepts that executive top-down control of behavior is mediated by prefrontal glutamatergic projections. This is a preliminary finding that needs a replication in an independent sample.

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