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Differentiating Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Individuals with Asperger Syndrome

Empathy is a multidimensional construct entailing cognitive (understanding others' mental states, theory of mind) and affective components such as the emotional reaction to the observed experiences of others. A lack of empathy is considered a central characteristic of the autism spectrum condition known as Asperger syndrome (AS), despite a lack of systematic and simultaneous research in the cognitive and affective components of empathy.

Unlike any published study to date, we have compiled preliminary data in individuals with AS using comprehensive multidimensional assessments of empathy. In these studies we administered in-house developed empathy measures that allow separate assessment of emotional and cognitive components, while maximizing ecological validity (everyday-life relevance). The Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition (MASC) is a video-based measure of cognitive empathy that requires a subject to infer mental states of movie characters. The Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET) allows simultaneous assessment of cognitive and affective empathy, asking study participants to rate their emotional reaction to social picture stimuli.

These preliminary data found that while individuals with AS seem to have impairments in inferring others' mental states (cognitive empathy), they are as empathically concerned for others (emotional empathy) as control subjects. In a next step we seek to show in healthy controls and individuals with AS that cognitive and emotional empathy recruit dissociable brain networks. We plan to use the MASC and MET and a combination of structural (brain volumertrics) and functional MRI measures. We are particularly interested in fronto-temporal areas such as the amygdala, superior temporal sulcus, orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate and insula.

 

Autism and the brain figure
© Max Planck Institute for Human Development