A lesion model of envy and "Schadenfreude" : legal, deservingness and moral dimensions as revealed by neurodegeneration
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Santamaría-García, José A.
Santacruz-Escudero, José M.
García, Adolfo M.
The study of moral emotions (i.e. Schadenfreude and envy) is critical to understand the ecological complexity of everyday interactions between cognitive, affective, and social cognition processes. Most previous studies in this area have used correlational imaging techniques and framed Schadenfreude and envy as unified and monolithic emotional domains. Here, we profit from a relevant neurodegeneration model to disentangle the brain regions engaged in three dimensions of Schadenfreude and envy: deservingness, morality, and legality. We tested a group of patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), patients with Alzheimer’s disease, as a contrastive neurodegeneration model, and healthy controls on a novel task highlighting each of these dimensions in scenarios eliciting Schadenfreude and envy. Compared with the Alzheimer’s disease and control groups, patients with bvFTD obtained significantly higher scores on all dimensions for both emotions. Correlational analyses revealed an association between envy and Schadenfreude scores and greater deficits in social cognition, inhibitory control, and behaviour disturbances in bvFTD patients. Brain anatomy findings (restricted to bvFTD and controls) confirmed the partially dissociable nature of the moral emotions’ experiences and highlighted the importance of socio-moral brain areas in processing those emotions. In all subjects, an association emerged between Schadenfreude and the ventral striatum, and between envy and the anterior cingulate cortex. In addition, the results supported an association between scores for moral and legal transgression and the morphology of areas implicated in emotional appraisal, including the amygdala and the parahippocampus. By contrast, bvFTD patients exhibited a negative association between increased Schadenfreude and envy across dimensions and critical regions supporting social-value rewards and social-moral processes (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, angular gyrus and precuneus). Together, this study provides lesion-based evidence for the multidimensional nature of the emotional experiences of envy and Schadenfreude. Our results offer new insights into the mechanisms subsuming complex emotions and moral cognition in neurodegeneration. Moreover, this study presents the exacerbation of envy and Schadenfreude as a new potential hallmark of bvFTD that could impact in diagnosis and progression.