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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2006 Dec;1(3):203-13. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsl033.

Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior.

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Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Program, University of Southern California, USA.


A common feature of the antisocial, rule-breaking behavior that is central to criminal, violent and psychopathic individuals is the failure to follow moral guidelines. This review summarizes key findings from brain imaging research on both antisocial behavior and moral reasoning, and integrates these findings into a neural moral model of antisocial behavior. Key areas found to be functionally or structurally impaired in antisocial populations include dorsal and ventral regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), amygdala, hippocampus, angular gyrus, anterior cingulate and temporal cortex. Regions most commonly activated in moral judgment tasks consist of the polar/medial and ventral PFC, amygdala, angular gyrus and posterior cingulate. It is hypothesized that the rule-breaking behavior common to antisocial, violent and psychopathic individuals is in part due to impairments in some of the structures (dorsal and ventral PFC, amygdala and angular gyrus) subserving moral cognition and emotion. Impairments to the emotional component that comprises the feeling of what is moral is viewed as the primary deficit in antisocials, although some disruption to the cognitive and cognitive-emotional components of morality (particularly self-referential thinking and emotion regulation) cannot be ruled out. While this neurobiological predisposition is likely only one of several biosocial processes involved in the etiology of antisocial behavior, it raises significant moral issues for the legal system and neuroethics.

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