Different contributions of the human amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex to decision-making

Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Antonio R. Damasio, Gregory P. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1524 Scopus citations


The somatic marker hypothesis proposes that decision-making is a process that depends on emotion. Studies have shown that damage of the ventromedial prefrontal (VMF) cortex precludes the ability to use somatic (emotional) signals that are necessary for guiding decisions in the advantageous direction. However, given the role of the amygdala in emotional processing, we asked whether amygdala damage also would interfere with decision-making. Furthermore, we asked whether there might be a difference between the roles that the amygdala and VMF cortex play in decision-making. To address these two questions, we studied a group of patients with bilateral amygdala, but not VMF, damage and a group of patients with bilateral VMF, but not amygdala, damage. We used the 'gambling task' to measure decision-making performance and electrodermal activity (skin conductance responses, SCR) as an index of somatic state activation. All patients, those with amygdala damage as well as those with VMF damage, were (1) impaired on the gambling task and (2) unable to develop anticipatory SCRs while they pondered risky choices. However, VMF patients were able to generate SCRs when they received a reward or a punishment (play money), whereas amygdala patients failed to do so. In a Pavlovian conditioning experiment the VMF patients acquired a conditioned SCR to visual stimuli paired with an aversive loud sound, whereas amygdala patients failed to do so. The results suggest that amygdala damage is associated with impairment in decision-making and that the roles played by the amygdala and VMF in decision-making are different.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5473-5481
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 1 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Amygdala
  • Conditioning
  • Decision-making
  • Emotion
  • Gambling task
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Skin conductance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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