The lost neural hierarchy of the autistic self-locked-out of the mental self and its default-mode network

Fuxin Lian, Georg Northoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a fundamental change in selfawareness including seemingly paradoxical features like increased ego-centeredness and weakened self-referentiality. What is the neural basis of this so-called “self-paradox”? Conducting a metaanalytic review of fMRI rest and task studies, we show that ASD exhibits consistent hypofunction in anterior and posterior midline regions of the default-mode network (DMN) in both rest and task with decreased self-non-self differentiation. Relying on a multilayered nested hierarchical model of self, as recently established (Qin et al. 2020), we propose that ASD subjects cannot access the most upper layer of their self, the DMN-based mental self-they are locked-out of their own DMN and its mental self. This, in turn, results in strong weakening of their self-referentiality with decreases in both self-awareness and self-other distinction. Moreover, this blocks the extension of non-DMN cortical and subcortical regions at the lower layers of the physical self to the DMN-based upper layer of the mental self, including self-other distinction. The ASD subjects remain stuck and restricted to their intero- and exteroceptive selves as manifested in a relative increase in ego-centeredness (as compared to self-referentiality). This amounts to what we describe as “Hierarchical Model of Autistic Self” (HAS), which, characterizing the autistic self in hierarchical and spatiotemporal terms, aligns well with and extends current theories of ASD including predictive coding and weak central coherence.

Original languageEnglish
Article number574
JournalBrain Sciences
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Default-mode network
  • Mental-self
  • Predictive coding
  • Self-reference
  • Theory of mind
  • Weaken central coherence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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