Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Curr Biol. 2015 Jun 1;25(11):1469-74. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.03.057. Epub 2015 Apr 23.

Altered communicative decisions following ventromedial prefrontal lesions

Damage to the human ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) leads to profound changes in everyday social interactions. Yet, in the lab, vmPFC patients show surprising proficiency in reasoning about other agents. These conflicting observations suggest that what vmPFC patients lack in everyday social interactions might be the ability to guide their decisions with knowledge about a social partner, despite preserved access to that knowledge. Quantification of socially relevant decisions during live interaction with different partners offers the possibility of testing this hypothesis. Eight patients with vmPFC damage, eight patients with brain damage elsewhere, and 15 healthy participants were asked to communicate non-verbally with two different addressees, an adult or a child, in an experimentally controlled interactive setting. In reality, a confederate blindly performed the role of both adult and child addressee, with matched performance and response times, such that the two addressees differed only in terms of the communicator's beliefs. Patients with vmPFC damage were able-and motivated-to generate communicatively effective behaviors. However, unlike patient and healthy controls, vmPFC patients failed to adjust their communicative decisions to the presumed abilities of their addressee. These findings indicate that the human vmPFC is necessarily involved in social interactions, insofar as those interactions need to be tailored toward knowledge about a social partner. In this perspective, the known contribution of this region to disparate domains like value-based decision-making, schema-based memory-processing, and person-specific mentalizing might be instances of decisions based on contingently updated conceptual knowledge.

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