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Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Jul 1;72(1):70-7. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.11.024. Epub 2012 Jan 3.

Fear processing and social networking in the absence of a functional amygdala.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Bonn, Germany.



The human amygdala plays a crucial role in processing social signals, such as face expressions, particularly fearful ones, and facilitates responses to them in face-sensitive cortical regions. This contributes to social competence and individual amygdala size correlates with that of social networks. While rare patients with focal bilateral amygdala lesion typically show impaired recognition of fearful faces, this deficit is variable, and an intriguing possibility is that other brain regions can compensate to support fear and social signal processing.


To investigate the brain's functional compensation of selective bilateral amygdala damage, we performed a series of behavioral, psychophysiological, and functional magnetic resonance imaging experiments in two adult female monozygotic twins (patient 1 and patient 2) with equivalent, extensive bilateral amygdala pathology as a sequela of lipoid proteinosis due to Urbach-Wiethe disease.


Patient 1, but not patient 2, showed preserved recognition of fearful faces, intact modulation of acoustic startle responses by fear-eliciting scenes, and a normal-sized social network. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that patient 1 showed potentiated responses to fearful faces in her left premotor cortex face area and bilaterally in the inferior parietal lobule.


The premotor cortex face area and inferior parietal lobule are both implicated in the cortical mirror-neuron system, which mediates learning of observed actions and may thereby promote both imitation and empathy. Taken together, our findings suggest that despite the pre-eminent role of the amygdala in processing social information, the cortical mirror-neuron system may sometimes adaptively compensate for its pathology.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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