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Ability to Consider Other People’s Thoughts Grows After Age 6

Last Updated: July 15, 2009.

Brain scan study sheds light on social development.

WEDNESDAY, July 15 (HealthDay News) -- By the time children are 6 years old, the parts of their brain involved in social cognition may be in place, a finding that may have implications for children with autism, according to U.S. researchers.

Social cognition is the ability to consider the thoughts and mental states of others.

In the study, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University scanned the brains of 13 children, aged 6 to 11, while they listened to children's stories, to monitor activity in the parts of the brain used for social cognition.

The activity in these areas of the brain was similar to patterns seen in adults, with one notable difference: a brain region called the right tempero-parietal junction appeared to change function between the ages of 6 and 11. At age 6, this region played a general role in thinking about people. By age 11, the region appeared to have a more specialized role in thinking only about other people's thoughts, the brain scans revealed.

"What we found -- a pattern of typical development -- may offer clues as we study atypical social development, as happens in autism," study leader Rebecca Saxe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, said in a news release from the Society for Research in Child Development.

"Children with autism appear to have specific difficulties thinking about other people's thoughts. Understanding how human brains typically learn to think about [others'] thoughts may let us detect what is going wrong in an autistic brain, and maybe even target interventions toward those neural systems, to improve chances for recovery," she explained.

The study appears in the July/August issue of Child Development.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.

SOURCE: Society for Research in Child Development, news release, July 15, 2009

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