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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 Jun;2(2):84-92. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsm001.

Selective deficit in personal moral judgment following damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

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Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università di Bologna, Bologna, Italy, and Centro Studi e Ricerche di Neuroscienze Cognitive, Cesena, Italy.


Recent fMRI evidence has detected increased medial prefrontal activation during contemplation of personal moral dilemmas compared to impersonal ones, which suggests that this cortical region plays a role in personal moral judgment. However, functional imaging results cannot definitively establish that a brain area is necessary for a particular cognitive process. This requires evidence from lesion techniques, such as studies of human patients with focal brain damage. Here, we tested 7 patients with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and 12 healthy individuals in personal moral dilemmas, impersonal moral dilemmas and non-moral dilemmas. Compared to normal controls, patients were more willing to judge personal moral violations as acceptable behaviors in personal moral dilemmas, and they did so more quickly. In contrast, their performance in impersonal and non-moral dilemmas was comparable to that of controls. These results indicate that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is necessary to oppose personal moral violations, possibly by mediating anticipatory, self-focused, emotional reactions that may exert strong influence on moral choice and behavior.

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