The impact of early and late damage to the human amygdala on ‘theory of mind’ reasoning

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There is a burgeoning interest in the neural basis of the ability to attribute mental states to others; a capacity referred to as ‘theory of mind’ (ToM). We examined the effects of lesions of the amygdala which arise at different stages of development on this key aspect of social cognition. Tests of ToM, executive and general neuropsychological function were given to subjects with lesions of the amygdala arising congenitally or in early childhood (‘early damage’, n=15), subjects who acquired damage to the amygdala in adulthood (‘late damage’ n=11) and matched clinical (n=14) and healthy comparison groups (n=38). Subjects with early damage to the amygdala, particularly if the lesion was associated with childhood onset of seizures, were impaired relative to all other groups on more advanced tests of ToM reasoning, such as detecting tactless or ironic comments or interpreting non-literal utterances. These deficits held for subjects with either left or right early amygdala damage and encompassed the understanding of both the beliefs and emotional states of others. In contrast, subjects who acquired damage to the amygdala in adulthood (usually as part of an anterior temporal lobectomy) were not impaired in ToM reasoning relative to both clinical and healthy controls, supporting the position that the amygdala is not part of the neural circuitry mediating the ‘on-line’ performance of ToM reasoning. In line with theories which claim that ToM is an independent faculty of cognition, we found that the pattern of results held after co-varying for measures of executive function, memory and general intellectual functioning. We discuss the results in the light of recent theories which link early developmental insults to the amygdala with the ToM impairments which are thought to be a core neurocognitive deficit found in disorders such as autism. We conclude that the amygdala may play an important role in the neural systems supporting the normal development of ToM reasoning.

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