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Single neurons may power key ‘theory of mind’ skills

Some neurons have distinct firing patterns when a person tries to infer what someone else is thinking, according to a new study. The cells may be central to ‘theory of mind,’ or the ability to understand and reason about what others think.

Theory of mind is an essential part of social interactions, and it may be lacking in some autistic people, research suggests. For example, many autistic people perform poorly on the ‘false-belief task,’ which involves listening to a short story about a character who wrongly believes something and answering questions about how that character then acts.

During such tasks, a part of the brain called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is active, but it has been unclear what underlies that activity. The new work suggests that individual neurons within the region encode various components of theory of mind: Some cells activate when a person considers someone else’s beliefs, some signal whether those beliefs are true or false, and some even encode the content of those beliefs.

“These types of cells have been long hypothesized, and they are really central to many theories in social neuroscience. But they haven’t really been shown before,” says lead investigator Ziv Williams, associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard University.

The information carried by these neurons “seems very, very specific to understanding things from another person’s perspective — understanding their beliefs about the world and that they’re different from your own,” says Michael Platt, professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study. “It’s really striking.”

State of mind:

Williams and his colleagues recorded the activity of 324 neurons in total in 15 people undergoing surgery to implant deep-brain stimulation devices in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The team already uses neuron recordings to target a device’s placement, so they could run the experiment without disrupting the procedures.

The participants — who were awake during surgery — listened to short descriptions of different scenarios, followed by questions. One scenario resembled the traditional false-belief task. In another, the character held a true belief. A third scenario required no consideration of another persons’ beliefs to answer the questions correctly.

Among the neurons analyzed, 20 percent had activity patterns that differed based on whether or not a participant was considering someone else’s belief, the researchers found. About 23 percent fired differently depending on whether that belief was true or false, 34 percent based on whether the belief involved an object’s location, and 60 percent based on whether the belief was about the object’s identity. The work was published in January in Nature.

“When you take all these bits and pieces of information, you can put them together and paint a fairly detailed picture of what it is that somebody else is actually thinking and believing, which is pretty remarkable,” Williams says.

Perspective shift:

The neurons’ activity patterns also hinted at a participant’s answers: For questions a participant got right, the cells had correctly encoded information about the scenario 72 percent of the time; for those they answered incorrectly, the cells had encoded the right information only 56 percent of the time.

“You can almost predict whether the participant is going to get the answer correct before they provided the answer,” Williams says.

Running the same experiment with autistic participants could shed light on why many people with autism fail tasks that rely on theory of mind — and whether the problem is at the level of single neurons or more network-wide, says study investigator Mohsen Jamali, instructor of neurosurgery at Harvard.

Even if later work can identify differences in these cells for people with and without autism, though, “what on earth does it mean?” says Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work.

“What you really want to know is, where do these cells get their input from?” she says. “How do they get set up there? When in development?”

“It is pretty amazing,” she says. But “it’s a typical case of a paper that raises more questions than it gives answers.”

The post Single neurons may power key ‘theory of mind’ skills appeared first on Spectrum | Autism Research News.

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THIS NOTICE DESCRIBES HOW MEDICAL INFORMATION ABOUT YOU MAY BE USED AND DISCLOSED AND HOW YOU CAN GET ACCESS TO THIS INFORMATION. PLEASE REVIEW IT CAREFULLY.

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Your protected health information may also be used and disclosed to pay your health care bills and to support the operation of our practice.
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1. Treatment: We will use and disclose your protected health information to provide, coordinate, or manage your health care and any related services. This includes the coordination or management of your health care with another provider.
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We may share your protected health information with third party "business associates" that perform various activities (for example, billing or transcription services) for our practice. Whenever an arrangement between our practice and a business associate involves the use or disclosure of your protected health information, we will have a written contract that contains terms that will protect the privacy of your protected health information.
We may use and / or disclose protected health information to contact you to, remind you about an appointment you have for treatment or medical care.
We may use or disclose your protected health information, as necessary, to provide you with information about treatment alternatives or other health--related benefits and services that may be of interest to you. You may contact our Privacy Officer to request that these materials not be sent to you.
4. Other Permitted and Required Uses and Disclosures That May Be Made Without Your Authorization or Opportunity to Agree and Object:
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Others Involved in Your Health Care or Payment for our Care:

Unless you object, we may disclose to a member of your family, a relative, a close friend or any other person you identify, your protected health information that directly relates to that person's involvement in your health care. If you are unable to agree or object to such a disclosure, we may disclose such information as necessary if we determine that it is in your best interest based on our professional judgment. We may use or disclose protected health information to notify or assist in notifying a family member, personal representative or any other person that is responsible for your care of your location, general condition or death. Finally, we may use or disclose your protected health information to an authorized public or private entity to assist in disaster relief efforts and to coordinate uses and disclosures to family or other individuals involved in your health care.
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This means you may ask us not to use or disclose any part of your protected health information for the purposes of treatment, payment or health care operations. You may also request that any part of your protected health information not be disclosed to family members or friends who may be involved in your care or for notification purposes as described in this Notice of Privacy Practices. Your request must state the specific restriction requested and to whom you want the restriction to apply.

We are not required to agree to a restriction that you may request. If we agree to the requested restriction, we may not use or disclose your protected health information in violation of that restriction unless it is needed to provide emergency treatment. With this in mind, please discuss any restriction you wish to request with your health provider.

You may request a restriction by making your request in writing to our Privacy Officer. In your request, you must tell us (1) what information you want to limit; (2) whether you want to limit our use, disclosure, or both; and (3) to whom you want the limits to apply, for example, disclosures to your spouse.
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We will accommodate reasonable requests. We may also condition this accommodation by asking you for information as to how payment will be handled or specification of an alternative address or other method of contact. We will not request an explanation from you as to the basis for the request. Please make this request in writing to our Privacy Officer.
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This means you may request an amendment of protected health information about you in a designated record set for so long as we maintain this information. In certain cases, we may deny your request for an amendment. If we deny your request for amendment, you have the right to file a statement of disagreement with us and we may prepare a rebuttal to your statement and will provide you with a copy of any such rebuttal. Please contact our Privacy Officer if you have questions about amending your medical record.
5. You have the right to receive an accounting of certain disclosures we have made, if any, of your protected health information This right applies to disclosures for purposes other than treatment, payment or health care operations as described in this Notice of Privacy Practices. It excludes disclosures we may have made to you if you authorized us to make the disclosure, to family members or friends involved in your care, or for notification purposes, for national security or intelligence, to law enforcement (as provided in the privacy rule) or correctional facilities, as part of a limited data set disclosure. The right to receive this information is subject to certain exceptions, restrictions and limitations.
6. You have the right to obtain a paper copy of this notice from us
upon request, even if you have agreed to accept this notice electronically.
D. COMPLAINTS
You may complain to us or to the Secretary of Health and Human Services if you believe your privacy rights have been violated by us. You may file a complaint with us by notifying our Privacy Officer of your complaint. We will not retaliate against you for filing a complaint

You may contact our Privacy Officer at (704) 824-7800 for further information about the complaint process.

This notice was published and becomes effective on August l, 2011.