Finding the imposter: brain connectivity of lesions causing delusional misidentifications

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See McKay and Furl (doi:10.1093/aww323) for a scientific commentary on this article.

Focal brain injury can sometimes lead to bizarre symptoms, such as the delusion that a family member has been replaced by an imposter (Capgras syndrome). How a single brain lesion could cause such a complex disorder is unclear, leading many to speculate that concurrent delirium, psychiatric disease, dementia, or a second lesion is required. Here we instead propose that Capgras and other delusional misidentification syndromes arise from single lesions at unique locations within the human brain connectome. This hypothesis is motivated by evidence that symptoms emerge from sites functionally connected to a lesion location, not just the lesion location itself. First, 17 cases of lesion-induced delusional misidentifications were identified and lesion locations were mapped to a common brain atlas. Second, lesion network mapping was used to identify brain regions functionally connected to the lesion locations. Third, regions involved in familiarity perception and belief evaluation, two processes thought to be abnormal in delusional misidentifications, were identified using meta-analyses of previous functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. We found that all 17 lesion locations were functionally connected to the left retrosplenial cortex, the region most activated in functional magnetic resonance imaging studies of familiarity. Similarly, 16 of 17 lesion locations were functionally connected to the right frontal cortex, the region most activated in functional magnetic resonance imaging studies of expectation violation, a component of belief evaluation. This connectivity pattern was highly specific for delusional misidentifications compared to four other lesion-induced neurological syndromes (P < 0.0001). Finally, 15 lesions causing other types of delusions were connected to expectation violation (P < 0.0001) but not familiarity regions, demonstrating specificity for delusion content. Our results provide potential neuroanatomical correlates for impaired familiarity perception and belief evaluation in patients with delusional misidentifications. More generally, we demonstrate a mechanism by which a single lesion can cause a complex neuropsychiatric syndrome based on that lesion’s unique pattern of functional connectivity, without the need for pre-existing or hidden pathology.

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