Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Monday, 23 May 2005 01:10 UK

'Sarcasm' brain areas discovered

Image of the brain
The scientists pinpointed three important brain areas

Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that comprehend sarcasm - honestly.

By comparing healthy people and those with damage to different parts of the brain, they found the front of the brain was key to understanding sarcasm.

Damage to any of three different areas could render individuals unable to understand sarcastic comments.

The Israeli team from Haifa University told Neuropsychology how their findings might help to explain autism features.

Autistic children can have problems interpreting sarcasm as well as other social cues such as emotions.

If someone has a problem understanding a social situation, he or she may fail to understand the literal language
Researcher Dr Simone Shamay-Tsoory

This same skill is sometimes lost in people with brain damage, suggesting similar brain regions may be involved in autism.

Brain scan studies of autistic children have shown that they have different activity in the frontal lobe to other children.

Dr Simone Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues studied 25 people with prefrontal lobe damage, 16 with damage to the posterior lobe of the brain and 17 healthy volunteers.

They played the study participants tape-recorded stories, some sarcastic and some neutral.

An example of sarcasm was "Joe came to work, and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His boss noticed and said to Joe 'don't work too hard.'"

In fact, what Joe's boss actually meant by his comment was "you are a slacker".

In the neutral version Joe came to work and began work immediately. His boss made the same "don't work too hard" comment, but this time, he actually meant that Joe was a hard worker.

The volunteers who had damage to their prefrontal lobes were unable to correctly interpret the sarcastic story, while all of the other participants could.

Anatomy

Dr Shamay-Tsoory said this fitted with what is already known about the anatomy of the brain.

She said language areas on the left hand side of the brain interpret the literal meaning of words and the frontal lobes and the right side of the brain understand the social and emotional context.

An area called the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex then integrates the literal meaning with the social/emotional context, which will reveal any sarcasm.

"A lesion in each region in the network can impair sarcasm, because if someone has a problem understanding a social situation, he or she may fail to understand the literal language," she said.

A spokeswoman from the National Autistic Society said: "The causes of autism are still being investigated.

"Many experts believe that the pattern of behaviour from which autism is diagnosed may not result from a single cause.

"There is strong evidence to suggest that autism can be caused by a variety of physical factors, all of which affect brain development."




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