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Neural Activity while Imitating Emotional Faces is Related to Both Lower and Higher-Level Social Cognitive Performance


Imitation and observation of actions and facial emotional expressions activates the human fronto-parietal mirror network. There is skepticism regarding the role of this low-level network in more complex high-level social behaviour. We sought to test whether neural activation during an observation/imitation task was related to both lower and higher level social cognition. We employed an established observe/imitate task of emotional faces during functional MRI in 28 healthy adults, with final analyses based on 20 individuals following extensive quality control. Partial least squares (PLS) identified patterns of relationships between spatial activation and a battery of objective out-of-scanner assessments that index lower and higher-level social cognitive performance, including the Penn emotion recognition task, reading the mind in the eyes, the awareness of social inference test (TASIT) parts 1, 2, and 3, and the relationships across domains (RAD) test. Strikingly, activity in limbic, right inferior frontal, and inferior parietal areas during imitation of emotional faces correlated with performance on emotion evaluation (TASIT1), social inference - minimal (TASIT2), social inference - enriched (TASIT3), and the RAD tests. These results show a role for this network in both lower-level and higher-level social cognitive processes which are collectively critical for social functioning in everyday life.

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