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Characterization of the decision-making deficit of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions

Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, Hanna Damasio
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/123.11.2189 2189-2202 First published online: 1 November 2000

Summary

On a gambling task that models real-life decisions, patients with bilateral lesions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VM) opt for choices that yield high immediate gains in spite of higher future losses. In this study, we addressed three possibilities that may account for this behaviour: (i) hypersensitivity to reward; (ii) insensitivity to punishment; and (iii) insensitivity to future consequences, such that behaviour is always guided by immediate prospects. For this purpose, we designed a variant of the original gambling task in which the advantageous decks yielded high immediate punishment but even higher future reward. The disadvantageous decks yielded low immediate punishment but even lower future reward. We measured the skin conductance responses (SCRs) of subjects after they had received a reward or punishment. Patients with VM lesions opted for the disadvantageous decks in both the original and variant versions of the gambling task. The SCRs of VM lesion patients after they had received a reward or punishment were not significantly different from those of controls. In a second experiment, we investigated whether increasing the delayed punishment in the disadvantageous decks of the original task or decreasing the delayed reward in the disadvantageous decks of the variant task would shift the behaviour of VM lesion patients towards an advantageous strategy. Both manipulations failed to shift the behaviour of VM lesion patients away from the disadvantageous decks. These results suggest that patients with VM lesions are insensitive to future consequences, positive or negative, and are primarily guided by immediate prospects. This `myopia for the future' in VM lesion patients persists in the face of severe adverse consequences, i.e. rising future punishment or declining future reward.

  • reward
  • punishment
  • gambling task
  • decision-making
  • ventromedial prefrontal cortex
  • SCR = skin conductance responses
  • VM = ventromedial prefrontal cortex
  • WCST = Wisconsin Card Sorting Test
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