Theory of mind (ToM) or mentalizing difficulties is reported in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but the mechanism underpinning these apparently shared deficits is relatively unknown. Eighty-three young adult males, 19 with ASD alone, 21 with ADHD alone, 18 with dual diagnosis of ASD and ADHD, and 25 typically developing (TD) controls completed the functional magnetic resonance imaging version of the Frith-Happé animated-triangle ToM task. We compared neural function during ToM with two non-ToM conditions, random and goal directed motions, using whole-brain and region-of-interest analysis of brain activation and functional connectivity analyses. The groups showed comparable ToM task performance. All three clinical groups lacked local connectivity increase shown by TD controls during ToM in the right temporoparietal cortex, a key mentalizing region, with a differentially increased activation pattern in both ASD and comorbid groups relative to ADHD. Both ASD groups also showed reduced connectivity between right inferior lateral prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices that could reflect an atypical information transmission to the mentalizing network. In contrast, with mentalizing both ADHD groups showed decreasing connectivity between the medial prefrontal and left temporoparietal cortices when compared to TD controls. Therefore, despite the complex pattern of atypical brain function underpinning ToM across the three disorders, some neurofunctional abnormalities during ToM are associated with ASD and appeared differentiable from those associated with ADHD, with the comorbid group displaying combined abnormalities found in each condition.

Original languageEnglish
Article number544482
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2020


  • attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • autism spectrum disoder (ASD)
  • functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • neurodevelopmental disorder
  • theory of mind (ToM)


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