Social and motivational functioning is not critically dependent on feedback of autonomic responses: neuropsychological evidence from patients with pure autonomic failure

Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(14):1979-88. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2004.06.001.


Social, emotional and motivational behaviours are associated with production of automatic bodily responses. Re-representation in the brain through feedback of autonomic and skeletomuscular arousal is proposed to underlie "feeling states". These influence emotional judgments and bias motivational decision-making and guide social interactions. Consistent with this hypothesis, dissocial behaviour and deficits on emotional and motivation tasks are associated with blunted bodily responses in patients with orbitofrontal brain lesions or developmental psychopathy. To determine the critical dependence of social and emotional behaviours on bodily responses mediated by the autonomic nervous system, we examined patients with pure autonomic failure (PAF), a peripheral denervation of autonomic neurons with onset in middle age. Compared to healthy subjects, PAF patients were unimpaired on tests of motivational decision-making (Iowa Gambling Task), recognition of emotional facial expressions, Theory of Mind Tasks and tests of social cognition. Only on a test of emotional attribution, which is perhaps more sensitive to subjective feeling states, did PAF patients score worse than the comparison group, though there was no evidence that this deficit was specific to a discrete emotion and requires further validation. These findings suggest that emotional and social functioning is not critically tied to on-going experience of autonomic arousal state, Acquisition of autonomic failure late in life may protect against maladaptive social behaviour through established behavioural responses that may be associated with central "as if" representations.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Emotions
  • Feedback*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Social Behavior*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric