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Lesions of the human amygdala impair enhanced perception of emotionally salient events


Commensurate with the importance of rapidly and efficiently evaluating motivationally significant stimuli, humans are probably endowed with distinct faculties1,2 and maintain specialized neural structures to enhance their detection. Here we consider that a critical function of the human amygdala3,4 is to enhance the perception of stimuli that have emotional significance. Under conditions of limited attention for normal perceptual awareness—that is, the attentional blink5,6—we show that healthy observers demonstrate robust benefits for the perception of verbal stimuli of aversive content compared with stimuli of neutral content. In contrast, a patient with bilateral amygdala damage has no enhanced perception for such aversive stimulus events. Examination of patients with either left or right amygdala resections shows that the enhanced perception of aversive words depends specifically on the left amygdala. All patients comprehend normally the affective meaning of the stimulus events, despite the lack of evidence for enhanced perceptual encoding of these events in patients with left amygdala lesions. Our results reveal a neural substrate for affective influences on perception, indicating that similar neural mechanisms may underlie the affective modulation of both recollective7,8,9 and perceptual experience.

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Figure 1: Diagram of the dual-target rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) task.
Figure 2: Proportion of T2 items correctly identified at early and late T1–T2 temporal lags.
Figure 3: Proportion of T2 correctly identified for negative (circles) and neutral (triangles) items at early and late T1–T2 temporal lags for RTL and LTL patients.

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We thank M. Chun, E. De Rosa, K. O'Connor, K. Ochsner, I. Olson, M. Packard and N. Sobel for comments during the preparation of this manuscript, and D. Spencer for access to the patient samples. This work was supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation (E.A.P.).

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Correspondence to Adam K. Anderson.

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Figure 1.

Magnetic resonance images of lesion extent in the patient samples. Coronal T1-weighted (a) and fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (FLAIR) T2-weighted images (b.) at the level of the amygdala in patient SP. There is abnormal signal intensity in the left amygdala secondary to gliosis (curved arrows). The absence of the right amygdala as a result of surgical removal (straight arrows) is also portrayed. Coronal T2-weighted images and axial T2-weighted magnetic resonance images of two patients, one with a right temporal lobectomy (c., d.) and another with a left temporal lobectomy (e., f.). By imaging convention, the patient's right side is on the left side of images.

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Anderson, A., Phelps, E. Lesions of the human amygdala impair enhanced perception of emotionally salient events. Nature 411, 305–309 (2001).

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