Spearman Medal Lecture
Vol 13 No 10
OR many years the amygdalahas been implicated in emotionalprocessing. More recently itsimportance to our everyday psychologyhas been highlighted in the popular sciencepress and in books such as
by Antonio Damasio (1994) andthe
by Joe LeDoux(1996). Evidence for its importance comesfrom a wide variety of sources, includingcognitive psychology, neuropsychologyand behavioural neuroscience.In this article I discuss some recentstudies combining contemporary animallearning theory with behaviouralneuroscience. These complement studiesin normal humans and patient populationsto increase our understanding of this vitalbrain structure.But what exactly is the amygdala?
The amygdala is a small subcorticalstructure lying deep within the temporalregion of the brain. The name amygdala,like many of the seemingly complicatedterms in neuroanatomy, is merelya descriptive term related to the appearanceof the structure in this case it is derivedfrom a word meaning ‘almond’.However, this relatively smallstructure has a complicated neuroanatomy.It receives an enormous range of neuralinputs from a wide variety of areas of thebrain, both cortical areas and subcorticalstructures. Much of the information itreceives is of a highly processed nature by which I mean it is information that hasundergone a great degree of manipulation,combination and recombination in otherregions of the brain.It receives highly processed informationfrom the visual system, the auditory cortex,the olfactory and gustatory neocortex andthe somatosensory cortex. In short, it isinformed about each of our five senses sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.The amygdala also receives projectionsfrom areas of so-called association cortex information of a polymodal nature suchas that represented in the frontal cortex.Subcortically it receives information fromthe thalamus (relaying basic, unprocessedsensory signals), hippocampus (givingmore highly processed information aboutthe relationship between different objectsand events in the world), and a range of structures important in representing internalbodily states, such as hunger and thirst.In addition to this vast array of inputsit also projects to a wide variety of areas.It has reciprocal connections to many of the cortical areas just mentioned, as wellas projections to subcortical areas involvedin motor output, and hypothalamic andbrainstem regions involved in theco-ordination of autonomic, endocrineand behavioural responses.
The amygdala and emotion
There is a substantial body of work examining the role of the amygdalathat makes use of patients with selectivedamage to this region. This may occurdue to surgery, for example to destroy theepileptic focus in the case of intractableepilepsy, or in some very rare cases dueto congenital defects that lead to theprogressive calcification of limbicstructures sometimes restricted to theamygdala Urbech–Wiethe disorder.More recent studies have madeexcellent use of emerging imagingtechnology, employing positron emissiontomography (PET) and functional magneticresonance imaging (fMRI) of healthyparticipants to examine brain systemsunderpinning learning and emotion.One striking finding, which has beenreplicated a number of times, relatesamygdala damage to a deficit inrecognising facial expressions of emotion.This work is typified by studies conductedby Andy Young at the University of York and Andy Calder at the MRC Cognitionand Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge (e.g.Calder
, 1996). Moreover, this deficitappears to be selective, relating toexpressions of fear, anger and disgust,but not to happiness, sadness and surprise.Similarly, although patients withamygdala damage show surprisinglyfew deficits across a wide range of neuropsychological tests and can functionwell in everyday life, recent studies havestarted to pick out specific problems withsocial and emotional judgement.For example, Adolphs
(1998) took three people with highly selective damageto the amygdala and tested them on theirability to make judgements about theapproachability of others fromphotographs. In comparison to controls
The amygdala,emotion and learning
In the 1999 Spearman Medal Lecture
discussed the complex role of thisinfluential part of the brain.
Requests for reprints of this article should be addressed to:
Dr Simon KillcrossSchool of PsychologyCardiff UniversityTower BuildingPark PlacePO Box 901Cardiff CF11 3YG.Tel: 029 20875393E-mail: KillcrossAS@cf.ac.uk.
Amygdala damage can reduce recognition of fear,anger and disgust in people’s faces