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An fMRI study of simple ethical decision-making

Heekeren, Hauke R1,2,; Wartenburger, Isabell1,3,4; Schmidt, Helge1; Schwintowski, Hans-Peter5; Villringer, Arno1


Recent functional neuroimaging studies suggest that ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) and posterior cingulate cortex are engaged during moral decision-making on complex dilemmatic or salient emotional stimuli. In this fMRI study we investigated which of these brain regions are activated during simple ethical decision-making about unambiguous scenarios not containing direct bodily harm or violence. Simple moral decisions compared to semantic decisions resulted in activation of left pSTS and middle temporal gyrus, bilateral temporal poles, left lateral PFC and bilateral vmPFC. These results suggest that pSTS and vmPFC are a common neuronal substrate of decision-making about complex ethical dilemmas, processing material evocative of moral emotions and simple ethical decision-making about scenarios devoid of violence and direct bodily harm.

1Department of Neurology, Charité, Berlin, Germany; 2Laboratory of Brain and Cognition, NIMH, NIH, Bldg. 10, Rm 1D80, Bethesda, MD 20892-1148, USA; 3Department of Patholinguistics, University of Potsdam; 4Department of Neurology II, Otto von Guericke University, Magdeburg, Germany; 5Department of Law, Humboldt-University, Berlin, GermanyCA,2Corresponding Author and Present Address

Received 6 March 2003; accepted 28 March 2003

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.