Dopamine and theory of mind: another autism/schizophrenia dichotomy
There is an article in press in Neuropsyhcologia by Lackner et al that related Dopamine (DA) levels as measured by Eye Blink Rate (EBR) to preschoolers (3-5 yrs old) Representational theory of Mind (RTM).
The authors hypothesized that as one of the neural correlates of RTM is dMPFC, and as dMPFC has dopamine receptors and is innervated by dopmainergic projections along the dopamine mesocortical pathways , hence perhaps it is the dopamine’s tonic and phasic levels that may be correlated with and have a causal role in the preschoolers’ developing RTM abilities.
3-5 years is a critical period in which the RTM abilities are developing in a normal kid and are first found to be deficient in autistic kids. another linkage the authors seem relevant, but which I don’t agree to much, is the error -prediction theory of dopamine. They believe that ToM/RTM abilities develop when one takes into account the behavior of others and finds discrepancies in ones own knowledge and why they act based on certain different assumptions and by realizing this error of prediction modifies ones understanding of others and starts attributing a mind to them. The authors believe that phasic dopamine which has error prediction functions may be affecting RTM via this pathway too; I find that not very convincing.
However, their basic premise that tonic or baseline dopamine affects RTM abilite seems to be on firm ground and they found support for this hypothesis. They did not measure DA levels directly , but instead relied on Eye Bink Rate (EBR) which is a robuts predictor of overall dopamine in the mesolimbic pathways via the caudate nucleus dopamine levels. They also did not measure EBR directly but measured it using EEG waveforms of relevant brain regions above the eyes.
The RTM tasks they used and the Response -conflict executive function (RC-EF) tasks they used are very simple and intuitive and I refer the reader to methods section to pursue them in detail. For our purpose it is sufficient to mention that RTM did not include the famous anne-sally false belief task but had other variants like false belief location task etc.
Their findings were unequivocal. They found that DA levels as gauged from EBR were a significant predictors of RTM abilities and the effect was not mediated by a possible confound- that of RTM and RC-EF linkages and correlations.
For our purposes what is most important is the direction of the effect . More DA levels were associated with better RTM ; while lower DA was associated with lower RTM performance. This is consistent with the DA relation of Schizophrenia/Autism one of which has higher DA levels and better ToM; while the other both poorer ToM and lower baseline DA. To quote:
These findings dovetail with other research connecting dopamine and representational theory of mind in autistic and schizophrenic populations. Both autism and schizophrenia have been associated with RTM impairment (Pickup, 2008; Sabbagh,2004; Savina & Beninger, 2007) and dysregulation of DA (Braver, Barch, & Cohen, 1999; Lam, Aman, & Arnold, 2006). For instance, in the case of schizophrenia there is some evidence that increased levels of frontal dopamine, as a consequence of the pharmacological activity of some atypical antipsychotics, leads to increased performance on RTM tasks (Savina & Beninger, 2007). The present study added to this body of literature by demonstrating associations between RTM and DA in typically developing children. Considered together, this further supports the hypothesis that dopaminergic functioning plays a role in RTM development.
As always, I am excited by more support for Autism and Psychosis as opposites theory and belive this further cements the case and shows possible neurochemichal mechanisms underlying the difference.
Lackner, C., Bowman, L., & Sabbagh, M. (2010). Dopaminergic functioning and preschoolers’ theory of mind Neuropsychologia DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.02.027
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