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      Theory of Mind and Emotional Functioning in Fibromyalgia Syndrome: An Investigation of the Relationship between Social Cognition and Executive Function

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          Fibromyalgia (FM) is a syndrome primarily characterised by chronic, widespread musculoskeletal pain. In the aetiology of this syndrome a crucial role is played by complex interactions among biological, genetic, psychological, and socio-cultural factors. Recently, researchers have started to explore emotional functioning in FM, with their attention focused on alexithymia, a personality construct that affects the regulation of a person’s own emotions. On the other hand, the detection and experience of emotional signals from other people have only been sparsely investigated in FM syndrome and no studies have investigated the ability to represent other people’s mental states (i.e. Theory of Mind, ToM) in these patients. Here we present the first study investigating a large set of social-cognitive abilities, and the possible relationships between these abilities and the performance on executive-function tasks, in a homogenous sample of patients with FM.


          Forty women with FM and forty-one healthy women matched for education and age were involved in the study. Social cognition was assessed with a set of validated experimental tasks. Measures of executive function were used to test the correlations between this dimension and the social-cognitive profile of patients with FM. Relationships between social-cognitive abilities and demographic, clinical and psychological variables were also investigated.

          Principal Findings

          Patients with FM have impairments both in the regulation of their own affect and in the recognition of other’s emotions, as well as in representing other people’s mental states. No significant correlations were found between social cognition tasks and the subcomponents of the executive function that were analysed.


          The results show the presence of several impairments in social cognition skills in patients with FM, which are largely independent of both executive function deficits and symptoms of psychological distress. The impairments reported highlight the importance of adequately assessing ToM and emotional functioning in clinical practice.

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          Most cited references 62

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          The functional architecture of human empathy.

          Empathy accounts for the naturally occurring subjective experience of similarity between the feelings expressed by self and others without loosing sight of whose feelings belong to whom. Empathy involves not only the affective experience of the other person's actual or inferred emotional state but also some minimal recognition and understanding of another's emotional state. In light of multiple levels of analysis ranging from developmental psychology, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and clinical neuropsychology, this article proposes a model of empathy that involves parallel and distributed processing in a number of dissociable computational mechanisms. Shared neural representations, self-awareness, mental flexibility, and emotion regulation constitute the basic macrocomponents of empathy, which are underpinned by specific neural systems. This functional model may be used to make specific predictions about the various empathy deficits that can be encountered in different forms of social and neurological disorders.
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            Specific impairments of planning.

             T Shallice (1982)
            An information-processing model is outlined that predicts that performance on non-routine tasks can be impaired independently of performance on routine tasks. The model is related to views on frontal lobe functions, particularly those of Luria. Two methods of obtaining more rigorous tests of the model are discussed. One makes use of ideas from artificial intelligence to derive a task heavily loaded on planning abilities. A group of patients with left anterior lesions has a specific deficit on the task. Subsidiary investigations support the inference that this is a planning impairment.
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              Neuronal correlates of theory of mind and empathy: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in a nonverbal task.

              Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to attribute mental states to others, and empathy, the ability to infer emotional experiences, are important processes in social cognition. Brain imaging studies in healthy subjects have described a brain system involving medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus and temporal pole in ToM processing. Studies investigating networks associated with empathic responding also suggest involvement of temporal and frontal lobe regions. In this fMRI study, we used a cartoon task derived from Sarfati et al. (1997) [Sarfati, Y., Hardy-Bayle, M.C., Besche, C., Widlocher, D. 1997. Attribution of intentions to others in people with schizophrenia: a non-verbal exploration with comic strips. Schizophrenia Research 25, 199-209.]with both ToM and empathy stimuli in order to allow comparison of brain activations in these two processes. Results of 13 right-handed, healthy, male volunteers were included. Functional images were acquired using a 1.5 T Phillips Gyroscan. Our results confirmed that ToM and empathy stimuli are associated with overlapping but distinct neuronal networks. Common areas of activation included the medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction and temporal poles. Compared to the empathy condition, ToM stimuli revealed increased activations in lateral orbitofrontal cortex, middle frontal gyrus, cuneus and superior temporal gyrus. Empathy, on the other hand, was associated with enhanced activations of paracingulate, anterior and posterior cingulate and amygdala. We therefore suggest that ToM and empathy both rely on networks associated with making inferences about mental states of others. However, empathic responding requires the additional recruitment of networks involved in emotional processing. These results have implications for our understanding of disorders characterized by impairments of social cognition, such as autism and psychopathy.

                Author and article information

                Role: Academic Editor
                PLoS One
                PLoS ONE
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, CA USA )
                16 January 2015
                : 10
                : 1
                [1 ]Center for Cognitive Science, Department of Psychology, University of Turin, Turin, Italy
                [2 ]Clinical Psychology and Psycho-Oncology Unit, Department of Neuroscience, University of Turin, Turin, Italy
                [3 ]Rheumatology Unit, “Città della Salute e della Scienza” University Hospital of Turin, Turin, Italy
                [4 ]Neuroscience Institute of Turin, Turin, Italy
                University of Udine, ITALY
                Author notes

                Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

                Conceived and designed the experiments: MDT LC MA. Performed the experiments: MDT FC EF RT. Analyzed the data: MDT LC RBA MA. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: LC RBA MA. Wrote the paper: MDT LC RBA MA.


                This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited

                Page count
                Figures: 0, Tables: 5, Pages: 16
                Mauro Adenzato was supported by MIUR of Italy (FIRB 2012, RBFR12FOBD_001; Lorys Castelli and Rita B. Ardito were supported by University of Turin grants (“Ricerca scientifica finanziata dall’Università” Linea Generale and Linea Giovani; The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
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