Letters to Nature

Nature 433, 68-72 (6 January 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature03086; Received 7 September 2004; Accepted 7 October 2004

A mechanism for impaired fear recognition after amygdala damage

Ralph Adolphs1,2, Frederic Gosselin3, Tony W. Buchanan1, Daniel Tranel1, Philippe Schyns4 & Antonio R. Damasio1

  1. Department of Neurology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA
  2. Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA
  3. Departement de Psychologie, Université de Montréal, Montréal H3C 3J7, Canada
  4. Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QB, UK

Correspondence to: Ralph Adolphs1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to R.A. (Email: radolphs@hss.caltech.edu).

Ten years ago, we reported that SM, a patient with rare bilateral amygdala damage, showed an intriguing impairment in her ability to recognize fear from facial expressions1. Since then, the importance of the amygdala in processing information about facial emotions has been borne out by a number of lesion2, 3, 4 and functional imaging studies5, 6. Yet the mechanism by which amygdala damage compromises fear recognition has not been identified. Returning to patient SM, we now show that her impairment stems from an inability to make normal use of information from the eye region of faces when judging emotions, a defect we trace to a lack of spontaneous fixations on the eyes during free viewing of faces. Although SM fails to look normally at the eye region in all facial expressions, her selective impairment in recognizing fear is explained by the fact that the eyes are the most important feature for identifying this emotion. Notably, SM's recognition of fearful faces became entirely normal when she was instructed explicitly to look at the eyes. This finding provides a mechanism to explain the amygdala's role in fear recognition, and points to new approaches for the possible rehabilitation of patients with defective emotion perception.


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