The amygdala is known to play an important role in conscious and unconscious processing of emotional and highly arousing stimuli. Neuroanatomical evidence suggests that the amygdala participates in the control of autonomic responses, such as skin conductance responses (SCRs), elicited by emotionally salient stimuli, but little is known regarding its functional role in such control. We investigated this issue by showing emotional visual stimuli of varying arousal to patients with left (n = 12), right (n = 8), and bilateral (n = 3) amygdala damage and compared their results with those from 38 normal controls. Stimuli were presented both subliminally (using backward masking) and supraliminally under lateralized presentation to one visual hemifield. We collected SCRs as a physiological index of emotional responses. Subjects subsequently rated each stimulus on valence and arousal under free viewing conditions. There were two key findings: (1) impaired overall SCR after right amygdala damage; and (2) impaired correlation of SCR with the rated arousal of the stimuli after left amygdala damage. The second finding was strengthened further by finding a positive correlation between the evoked SCR magnitude and postsurgery amygdala volume, indicating impaired autonomic responses with larger tissue damage. Bilateral amygdala damage resulted in severe impairments on both of the above measures. Our results provide support for the hypothesis that the left and right amygdalae subserve different functions in emotion processing: the left may decode the arousal signaled by the specific stimulus, whereas the right may provide a global level of autonomic activation triggered automatically by any arousing stimulus.
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