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Charting the typical and atypical development of the social brain

  • Kevin A. Pelphrey (a1) and Elizabeth J. Carter (a1)

We describe recent progress in our program of research that aims to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify and delineate the brain systems involved in social perception and to chart the development of those systems and their roles as mechanisms supporting the development of social cognition in children, adolescents, and adults with and without autism. This research program was initiated with the intention of further specifying the role of the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) region in the network of neuroanatomical structures comprising the social brain. Initially, this work focused on evaluating STS function when typically developing adults were engaged in the visual analysis of other people's actions and intentions. We concluded that that the STS region plays an important role in social perception via its involvement in representing and predicting the actions and social intentions of other people from an analysis of biological–motion cues. These studies of typically developing people provided a set of core findings and a methodological approach that informed a set of fMRI studies of social perception dysfunction in autism. The work has established that dysfunction in the STS region, as well as reduced connectivity between this region and other social brain structures including the fusiform gyrus and amygdala, play a role in the pathophysiology of social perception deficits in autism. Most recently, this research program has incorporated a developmental perspective in beginning to chart the development of the STS region in children with and without autism.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Kevin A. Pelphrey, Department of Psychology, Baker Hall 342c, Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; E-mail:
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This article was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, John Merck Scholars Fund, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Veterans Affairs Administration, Autism Speaks, and National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Kevin Pelphrey is supported by a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIMH Grant MH071284). Elizabeth Carter is supported by a predoctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks. We gratefully acknowledge our collaborators, especially Gregory McCarthy, James Morris, and Truett Allison.

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