Large-scale brain networks are integral to the coordination of human behaviour, and their anatomy provides insights into the clinical presentation and progression of neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, which targets the default mode network, and behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia, which targets a more anterior salience network. Although the default mode network is recruited when healthy subjects deliberate about 'personal' moral dilemmas, patients with Alzheimer's disease give normal responses to these dilemmas whereas patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia give abnormal responses to these dilemmas. We hypothesized that this apparent discrepancy between activation- and patient-based studies of moral reasoning might reflect a modulatory role for the salience network in regulating default mode network activation. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to characterize network activity of patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia and healthy control subjects, we present four converging lines of evidence supporting a causal influence from the salience network to the default mode network during moral reasoning. First, as previously reported, the default mode network is recruited when healthy subjects deliberate about 'personal' moral dilemmas, but patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia producing atrophy in the salience network give abnormally utilitarian responses to these dilemmas. Second, patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia have reduced recruitment of the default mode network compared with healthy control subjects when deliberating about these dilemmas. Third, a Granger causality analysis of functional neuroimaging data from healthy control subjects demonstrates directed functional connectivity from nodes of the salience network to nodes of the default mode network during moral reasoning. Fourth, this Granger causal influence is diminished in patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia. These findings are consistent with a broader model in which the salience network modulates the activity of other large-scale networks, and suggest a revision to a previously proposed 'dual-process' account of moral reasoning. These findings also characterize network interactions underlying abnormal moral reasoning in frontotemporal dementia, which may serve as a model for the aberrant judgement and interpersonal behaviour observed in this disease and in other disorders of social function. More broadly, these findings link recent work on the dynamic interrelationships between large-scale brain networks to observable impairments in dementia syndromes, which may shed light on how diseases that target one network also alter the function of interrelated networks.
Keywords: default mode network; frontotemporal dementia; functional neuroimaging; moral reasoning; salience network.