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What Are the Common Results of Prefrontal Cortex Damage?

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  • Written By: H. Colledge
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobes of the brain. Functionally, the frontal lobes are involved in inhibiting inappropriate behavior, decision making, and planning. For this reason, prefrontal cortex damage commonly leads to an inability to plan or to behave in ways that are socially acceptable. If the damage occurs in childhood, individuals may never develop any understanding of moral behavior. When an injury happens in adulthood, the person may realize what is socially required but may still be unable to behave in an acceptable way.

Damage to the prefrontal cortex is relatively common, since this area is right behind the forehead. The function of this part of the cerebral cortex invovles organizing and carrying out complex tasks. Judgments and decisions could be impaired following its injury, as these are the parts of the brain which enable a person to consider possible future actions in the light of what happened in the past, allowing the probable best course of action to be chosen. As the impairments caused by damage are relatively specific, and most of the brain can still function normally, the condition may not be recognized as brain damage at first.

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The prefrontal cortex is involved with the ability to suppress speech and actions that would be considered immoral or inappropriate in most societies. For example, the person would be unable to refrain from eating when hungry, even when that involved removing food from someone else's plate. What is known as working memory can also be affected by prefrontal cortex damage. Working memory involves holding on to information for a number of seconds, like remembering a telephone number for long enough to key the digits into the telephone.

When there is damage to this part of the brain, the person typically will show a lack of empathy for other people; this is one of the factors involved in the development of antisocial behaviors. Some researchers have found that many violent criminals have defective prefrontal cortexes, with a decrease in the amount of brain tissue in this area. Such findings are associated with behavior that involves dishonesty, a lack of guilt, and an inability to see situations from a different point of view. Surgical treatment may be necessary for cases of prefrontal cortex damage that are caused by tumors or bleeding in the brain. In many cases, no treatment is possible and people will typically require supervision due to difficulties with organization and impulse control.

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bythewell
Post 3

@clintflint - The thing that I find weird about it is that I believe the reason people should act in a moral way is that it's logical to do so. If I act morally, I can then expect everyone else to do so as well.

So to find out that it is actually a function of the human brain that can be removed is disturbing. I have heard of disorders where people lose all their impulse control, and I've even heard of some medications which can do this as well.

But I wonder if someone could overcome it by trying to think logically about whether it is beneficial to do something or not.

clintflint
Post 2

@Mor - That kind of question has legal ramifications as well. If a person had impaired prefrontal cortex function temporarily, are they responsible for their actions while the impairment exists? It's not really madness, because they might still be able to think, they just can't control impulses or feel emotionally connected (a bad combination).

The human brain can be a weird thing. It is somewhat disturbing to realize that the deep and abiding love you feel for, say, your mother, has a distinct position in your brain and can be wiped out with a surgical strike.

Mor
Post 1

There was an episode of House, I think, where a woman was suffering from a suppression of prefrontal lobe function, and she was portrayed as a complete sociopath.

She had no empathy for anyone, but would fake emotions in order to advance herself in life. She had no way of forming any attachments and no way of telling right from wrong, except, I suppose, through observation of other people's reactions.

In the end they figured out how to get her brain working again, but I doubt that would happen very often in real life. It really brings up the question of who a person really is inside.

I mean, if damage to that part of my brain would fundamentally change my emotions and reactions to situations, does that mean I'm a completely different person if that happens? Am I just the summary of the different parts of my brain?

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