Abnormal processing of deontological guilt in obsessive–compulsive disorder

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Barbara Basile and Francesco Mancini and Emiliano Macaluso and Carlo Caltagirone and Marco Bozzali (2013): Abnormal processing of deontological guilt in obsessive--compulsive disorder. In: Brain Structure and Function, 219 (4), pp. 1321–1331, 2013, ISSN: 1863-2661.


Guilt plays a significant role in the occurrence and maintenance of obsessive--compulsive disorder (OCD). Two major types of guilt have been identified: one deriving from the transgression of a moral rule (deontological guilt DG), another (altruistic guilt AG), relying on the assumption of having compromised a personal altruistic goal. Clinical evidence suggests that OCD patients are particularly sensitive to DG, but not AG. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we investigated brain response of OCD patients while processing DG and AG stimuli. A previously validated fMRI paradigm was used to selectively evoke DG and AG, and anger and sadness, as control emotions in 13 OCD patients and 19 healthy controls. Patients' behavioral results showed a prominent attitude to experience guilt, compared to controls, while accomplishing task. fMRI results revealed that patients have reduced activation in the anterior cingulate (ACC) and frontal gyrus when experiencing guilt, regardless of its specific type (DG or AG). When separately considering each type of guilt (against each of its control), patients showed decreased activation in the ACC, the insula and the precuneus, for DG. No significant differences were observed between groups when processing AG, anger or sad stimuli. This study provides evidence for an abnormal processing of guilt, and specifically DG, in OCD patients. We suggest that decreased activation may reflect patients' cerebral efficiency, which derives from their frequent exposure to guilty feelings (``neural efficiency hypothesis''). In conclusion, our study confirms a selective abnormal processing of guilt, and specifically DG, in OCD.