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Published July 20, 2023 | Published + Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

Neural signatures of social inferences predict the number of real-life social contacts and autism severity


We regularly infer other people's thoughts and feelings from observing their actions, but how this ability contributes to successful social behavior and interactions remains unknown. We show that neural activation patterns during social inferences obtained in the laboratory predict the number of social contacts in the real world, as measured by the social network index, in three neurotypical samples (total n = 126) and one sample of autistic adults (n = 23). We also show that brain patterns during social inference generalize across individuals in these groups. Cross-validated associations between brain activations and social inference localize selectively to the right posterior superior temporal sulcus and were specific for social, but not nonsocial, inference. Activation within this same brain region also predicts autism-like trait scores from questionnaires and autism symptom severity. Thus, neural activations produced while thinking about other people's mental states predict variance in multiple indices of social functioning in the real world.

Additional Information

© The Author(s) 2023. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. This research was supported by funding from NIMH Conte Center P50 MH094258 (R.A.) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada RGPIN-2019-04329 (A.T.). We sincerely thank Tim Armstrong for his support during data collection. Data availability: The brain data (fMRI) for all neurotypical data generated in this study are available here: Conte Social Inference and Context collection at https://nda.nih.gov/edit_collection.html?id=2643; fMRI data for the autism sample as can be found on the Open Science Framework (OSF, https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/RNT8S). Source data are provided in a de-identified form with this paper and on OSF (https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/RNT8S) Source data are provided with this paper. Code availability: Behavioral and neural data were analyzed using MATLAB R2021a. FMRI data were analyzed using SPM12 (https://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/spm/); see hyperlinks in the manuscript for code regarding preprocessing and first-level GLMs; code underlying the MVPA analysis is openly available here103 or upon request. Contributions: A.T., R.P.S. and R.A. authors designed the study. A.T., R.P.S., L.K.P., J.M.T. and R.A. wrote the manuscript, and A.T., R.P.S. and J.M.T. performed data analysis. The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplemental Material - 41467_2023_40078_MOESM1_ESM.pdf

Supplemental Material - 41467_2023_40078_MOESM3_ESM.xlsx


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August 22, 2023
December 22, 2023