Neurocognitive mechanisms of theory of mind impairment in neurodegeneration: a transdiagnostic approach

06 September 2019

Much of human interaction is predicated upon our innate capacity to infer the thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and perspectives of others, in short, to possess a “theory of mind” (ToM). While the term has evolved considerably since its inception, ToM encompasses our unique ability to apprehend the mental states of others, enabling us to anticipate and predict subsequent behavior. From a developmental perspective, ToM has been a topic of keen research interest, with numerous studies seeking to explicate the origins of this fundamental capacity and its disruption in developmental disorders such as autism. The study of ToM at the opposite end of the lifespan, however, is paradoxically new born, emerging as a topic of interest in its own right comparatively recently. Here, we consider the unique insights afforded by studying ToM capacity in neurodegenerative disorders. Arguing from a novel, transdiagnostic perspective, we consider how ToM vulnerability reflects the progressive degradation of neural circuits special- ized for an array of higher-order cognitive processes. This mechanistic approach enables us to consider the common and unique neurocognitive mechanisms that underpin ToM dysfunction across neurodegenerative disorders and for the first time examine its relation to behavioral disturbances across social, intimate, legal, and criminal settings. As such, we aim to provide a comprehensive overview of ToM research in neurodegeneration, the resultant challenges for family members, clinicians, and the legal profession, and future directions worthy of exploration.