The neural basis for mental state attribution: A voxel-based lesion mapping study

Shira Cohen-Zimerman, Harsh Khilwani, Gretchen N.L. Smith, Frank Krueger, Barry Gordon, Jordan Grafman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ability to infer other persons' mental states, “Theory of Mind” (ToM), is a key function of social cognition and is needed when interpreting the intention of others. ToM is associated with a network of functionally related regions, with reportedly key prominent hubs located in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). The involvement of (mainly the right) TPJ in ToM is based primarily on functional imaging studies that provide correlational evidence for brain-behavior associations. In this lesion study, we test whether certain brain areas are necessary for intact ToM performance. We investigated individuals with penetrating traumatic brain injury (n = 170) and healthy matched controls (n = 30) using voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping (VLSM) and by measuring the impact of a given lesion on white matter disconnections. ToM performance was compared between five patient groups based on lesion location: right TPJ, left TPJ, right dlPFC, left dlPFC, and other lesion, as well as healthy controls. The only group to present with lower ToM abilities was the one with lesions in the right dlPFC. Similarly, VLSM analysis revealed a main cluster in the right frontal middle gyrus and a secondary cluster in the left inferior parietal gyrus. Last, we found that disconnection of the left inferior longitudinal fasciculus and right superior longitudinal fasciculus were associated with poor ToM performance. This study highlights the importance of lesion studies in complementing functional neuroimaging findings and supports the assertion that the right dlPFC is a key region mediating mental state attribution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-79
Number of pages15
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • connectivity
  • strange stories test
  • temporoparietal junction
  • theory of mind
  • voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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