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Brain. 2011 Aug;134(Pt 8):2422-35. doi: 10.1093/brain/awr151. Epub 2011 Jul 6.

The neural basis of deictic shifting in linguistic perspective-taking in high-functioning autism.

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Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890, USA.


Personal pronouns, such as 'I' and 'you', require a speaker/listener to continuously re-map their reciprocal relation to their referent, depending on who is saying the pronoun. This process, called 'deictic shifting', may underlie the incorrect production of these pronouns, or 'pronoun reversals', such as referring to oneself with the pronoun 'you', which has been reported in children with autism. The underlying neural basis of deictic shifting, however, is not understood, nor has the processing of pronouns been studied in adults with autism. The present study compared the brain activation pattern and functional connectivity (synchronization of activation across brain areas) of adults with high-functioning autism and control participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging in a linguistic perspective-taking task that required deictic shifting. The results revealed significantly diminished frontal (right anterior insula) to posterior (precuneus) functional connectivity during deictic shifting in the autism group, as well as reliably slower and less accurate behavioural responses. A comparison of two types of deictic shifting revealed that the functional connectivity between the right anterior insula and precuneus was lower in autism while answering a question that contained the pronoun 'you', querying something about the participant's view, but not when answering a query about someone else's view. In addition to the functional connectivity between the right anterior insula and precuneus being lower in autism, activation in each region was atypical, suggesting over reliance on individual regions as a potential compensation for the lower level of collaborative interregional processing. These findings indicate that deictic shifting constitutes a challenge for adults with high-functioning autism, particularly when reference to one's self is involved, and that the functional collaboration of two critical nodes, right anterior insula and precuneus, may play a critical role for deictic shifting by supporting an attention shift between oneself and others.

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