Fair play: social norm compliance failures in behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia

Brain. 2016 Jan;139(Pt 1):204-16. doi: 10.1093/brain/awv315. Epub 2015 Oct 26.


Adherence to social norms is compromised in a variety of neuropsychiatric conditions. Functional neuroimaging studies have investigated social norm compliance in healthy individuals, leading to the identification of a network of fronto-subcortical regions that underpins this ability. However, there is a lack of corroborative evidence from human lesion models investigating the structural anatomy of norm compliance across this fronto-subcortical network. To address this, we developed a neuroeconomic task to investigate social norm compliance in a neurodegenerative lesion model: behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia, a condition characterized by gross social dysfunction. The task assessed norm compliance across three behaviours that are well-studied in the neuroeconomics literature: fairness, prosocial and punishing behaviours. We administered our novel version of the Ultimatum Game in 22 patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia and 22 age-matched controls, to assess how decision-making behaviour was modulated in response to (i) fairness of monetary offers; and (ii) social context of monetary offers designed to produce either prosocial or punishing behaviours. Voxel-based morphometry was used to characterize patterns of grey matter atrophy associated with task performance. Acceptance rates between patients and controls were equivalent when only fairness was manipulated. However, patients were impaired in modulating their decisions in response to social contextual information. Patients' performance in the punishment condition was consistent with a reduced tendency to engage in punishment; this was associated with decreased grey matter volume in the anterior cingulate, orbitofrontal cortex, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and right inferior frontal gyrus. In the prosocial condition, patients' performance suggested a reduced expression of prosocial behaviour, associated with decreased grey matter in the anterior insula, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate and dorsal striatum. Acceptance rates in the Ultimatum Game were also significantly related to impairments in the everyday expression of empathic concern. In conclusion, we demonstrate that compliance to basic social norms (fairness) can be maintained in behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia; however, more complex normative behaviours (prosociality, punishment) that require integration of social contextual information are disrupted in association with atrophy in key fronto-striatal regions. These results suggest that the integration of social contextual information to guide normative behaviour is uniquely impaired in behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia, and may explain other common features of the condition including gullibility and impaired empathy. Our findings also converge with previous functional neuroimaging investigations in healthy individuals and provide the first description of the structural anatomy of social norm compliance in a neurodegenerative lesion model.

Keywords: behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia; empathy; fairness; prosocial; punishment; social norm compliance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Corpus Striatum / pathology
  • Decision Making*
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Frontotemporal Dementia / pathology
  • Frontotemporal Dementia / psychology*
  • Gray Matter / pathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuroimaging
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Social Norms*