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The goal of our research is to identify and characterize the brain circuits underlying emotion and social behavior.  To this end, we primarily study two clinical populations with notable deficits in these domains.

Neurological Patient Studies

In one line of work, we study neurological and neurosurgical patients who have undergone dramatic changes in emotion, personality, and social behavior as a result of focal brain lesions. By associating specific areas of brain damage with specific changes in emotion, one can infer which brain areas are critically involved in affective function, and ultimately, which brain areas may be responsible for disorders of emotion, such as depression and anxiety.

Phineas Gage, the classic lesion case of personality change
Phineas Gage koenigs lab
Map of brain damage in vmPFC lesion patients with social and emotional deficits
Lesion Maps koenigs lab

In addition to detailed mapping of the patient’s structural brain damage, we employ a range of assessment techniques that probe the patient’s emotional state as well as cognitive and psychosocial function. For example, we have shown that brain lesions involving prefrontal cortex or amygdala can alter the patient’s risk of developing certain types of psychopathology, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In other studies we have shown that brain lesions involving ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) can alter the patient’s “rational” decision-making, such as moral judgment, financial bargaining, or even susceptibility to commercial advertising.

Psychopathic Prison Inmate Studies

In a second line of work, we study prison inmates with psychopathy. Psychopathy is a mental health disorder characterized by impulsive antisocial behavior and a marked lack of empathy and guilt. The identification of neural correlates of the disorder could have profound implications for the clinical and legal management of psychopathic criminals, as well as for the basic understanding of the biological substrates underlying human social behavior.

Psychopathic serial killer Ted Bundy
bundy koenigs lab
Area of reduced connectivity in psychopaths (anterior vmPFC)
vmPFC connectivity koenigs lab

We use multimodal brain imaging to identify structural and functional abnormalities in the psychopaths’ brains, as well as behavioral testing to evaluate the psychopaths’ decision-making abilities. In particular, we are exploring the hypotheses that (1) psychopathy is associated with dysfunction in a circuit involving ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and (2) psychopathy may consist of distinct subtypes (differentiated on the basis of anxiety level), which have distinct neurobiological and behavioral features.