Abnormal fronto-limbic engagement in incarcerated stimulant users during moral processing

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2016 Sep;233(17):3077-87. doi: 10.1007/s00213-016-4344-4. Epub 2016 Jul 12.


Rationale: Stimulant use is a significant and prevalent problem, particularly in criminal populations. Previous studies found that cocaine and methamphetamine use is related to impairment in identifying emotions and empathy. Stimulant users also have abnormal neural structure and function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), amygdala, and anterior (ACC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), regions implicated in moral decision-making. However, no research has studied the neural correlates of stimulant use and explicit moral processing in an incarcerated population.

Objectives: Here, we examine how stimulant use affects sociomoral processing that might contribute to antisocial behavior. We predicted that vmPFC, amygdala, PCC, and ACC would show abnormal neural response during a moral processing task in incarcerated methamphetamine and cocaine users.

Methods: Incarcerated adult males (N = 211) were scanned with a mobile MRI system while completing a moral decision-making task. Lifetime drug use was assessed. Neural responses during moral processing were compared between users and non-users. The relationship between duration of use and neural function was also examined.

Results: Incarcerated stimulant users showed less amygdala engagement than non-users during moral processing. Duration of stimulant use was negatively associated with activity in ACC and positively associated with vmPFC response during moral processing.

Conclusions: These results suggest a dynamic pattern of fronto-limbic moral processing related to stimulant use with deficits in both central motive and cognitive integration elements of biological moral processes theory. This increases our understanding of how drug use relates to moral processing in the brain in an ultra-high-risk population.

Keywords: ACC; Cocaine; Limbic; Methamphetamine; Morality; Stimulant; fMRI; vmPFC.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants*
  • Decision Making*
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Frontal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / physiopathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Prisoners*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnostic imaging
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*


  • Central Nervous System Stimulants