Role of the amygdala in decisions under ambiguity and decisions under risk: evidence from patients with Urbach-Wiethe disease

Neuropsychologia. 2007 Mar 25;45(6):1305-17. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.09.021. Epub 2006 Oct 27.


Various neuropsychological studies have shown that decision-making deficits can occur in a wide range of patients with brain damage or dysfunctions. Decisions under ambiguity, as measured with the Iowa Gambling Task, primarily depend on the integrity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, as well as on further brain regions such as the somatosensory cortex. However, little is known about the specific role of these structures in decisions under risk measured with tasks that offer explicit rules for gains and losses and winning probabilities, for example, the Game of Dice Task. We aimed to investigate the potential role of the amygdala for decisions under risk. For this purpose, we examined three patients with Urbach-Wiethe disease--a rare syndrome associated with selective bilateral mineralisation of the amygdalae. Neuropsychological performance was assessed with the Iowa Gambling Task (decisions under ambiguity), the Game of Dice Task (decisions under risk), and an extensive neuropsychological test battery focussing on executive functions. Furthermore, previous studies found relationships between generating skin conductance responses and deciding advantageously in the Iowa Gambling Task. Accordingly, we recorded skin conductance responses during both decision tasks as a measure of emotional reactivity. Results indicate that patients with selective amygdala damage have lower scores in both decisions under ambiguity and decisions under risk. Decisions under risk are especially compromised in patients who also demonstrate deficits in executive functioning. In both gambling tasks, patients showed reduced skin conductance responses compared to healthy comparison subjects. The results suggest that deciding advantageously under risk conditions involves both the use of feedback from previous trials, as required by decisions under ambiguity, and in addition, executive functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology
  • Gambling / psychology
  • Humans
  • Lipoid Proteinosis of Urbach and Wiethe / psychology*
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Risk-Taking*