Guilt-selective functional disconnection of anterior temporal and subgenual cortices in major depressive disorder

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Oct;69(10):1014-21. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.135.


Context: Proneness to overgeneralization of self-blame is a core part of cognitive vulnerability to major depressive disorder (MDD) and remains dormant after remission of symptoms. Current neuroanatomical models of MDD, however, assume general increases of negative emotions and are unable to explain biases toward emotions entailing self-blame (eg, guilt) relative to those associated with blaming others (eg, indignation). Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in healthy participants have shown that moral feelings such as guilt activate representations of social meaning within the right superior anterior temporal lobe (ATL). Furthermore, this area was selectively coupled with the subgenual cingulate cortex and adjacent septal region (SCSR) during the experience of guilt compared with indignation. Despite its psychopathological importance, the functional neuroanatomy of guilt in MDD is unknown.

Objective: To use fMRI to test the hypothesis that, in comparison with control individuals, participants with remitted MDD exhibit guilt-selective SCSR-ATL decoupling as a marker of deficient functional integration.

Design: Case-control study from May 1, 2008, to June 1, 2010.

Setting: Clinical research facility.

Participants: Twenty-five patients with remitted MDD (no medication in 16 patients) with no current comorbid Axis I disorders and 22 controls with no personal or family history of MDD.

Main outcome measures: Between-group difference of ATL coupling with a priori SCSR region of interest for guilt vs indignation.

Results: We corroborated the prediction of a guilt-selective reduction in ATL-SCSR coupling in MDD vs controls (familywise error-corrected P=.001 over the region of interest) and revealed additional medial frontopolar, right hippocampal, and lateral hypothalamic areas of decoupling while controlling for medication status and intensity of negative emotions. Lower levels of ATL-SCSR coupling were associated with higher scores on a validated measure of overgeneralized self-blame (67-item Interpersonal Guilt Questionnaire).

Conclusions: Vulnerability to MDD is associated with temporofrontolimbic decoupling that is selective for self-blaming feelings. This provides the first neural mechanism ofMDD vulnerability that accounts for self-blaming biases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biomarkers
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Guilt*
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiopathology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / physiopathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / instrumentation
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Septum of Brain / physiopathology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Young Adult


  • Biomarkers