, Volume 233, Issue 17, pp 3077–3087 | Cite as

Abnormal fronto-limbic engagement in incarcerated stimulant users during moral processing

  • Samantha J. Fede
  • Carla L. Harenski
  • Jana Schaich Borg
  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
  • Vikram Rao
  • Brendan M. Caldwell
  • Prashanth K. Nyalakanti
  • Michael R. Koenigs
  • Jean Decety
  • Vince D. Calhoun
  • Kent A. Kiehl
Original Investigation



Stimulant use is a significant and prevalent problem, particularly in criminal populations. Previous studies found that cocaine and methamphetamine use is related to impairment in identifying emotions and empathy. Stimulant users also have abnormal neural structure and function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), amygdala, and anterior (ACC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), regions implicated in moral decision-making. However, no research has studied the neural correlates of stimulant use and explicit moral processing in an incarcerated population.


Here, we examine how stimulant use affects sociomoral processing that might contribute to antisocial behavior. We predicted that vmPFC, amygdala, PCC, and ACC would show abnormal neural response during a moral processing task in incarcerated methamphetamine and cocaine users.


Incarcerated adult males (N = 211) were scanned with a mobile MRI system while completing a moral decision-making task. Lifetime drug use was assessed. Neural responses during moral processing were compared between users and non-users. The relationship between duration of use and neural function was also examined.


Incarcerated stimulant users showed less amygdala engagement than non-users during moral processing. Duration of stimulant use was negatively associated with activity in ACC and positively associated with vmPFC response during moral processing.


These results suggest a dynamic pattern of fronto-limbic moral processing related to stimulant use with deficits in both central motive and cognitive integration elements of biological moral processes theory. This increases our understanding of how drug use relates to moral processing in the brain in an ultra-high-risk population.


Morality fMRI Cocaine Methamphetamine Stimulant vmPFC ACC Limbic 



Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse under R01MH070539, R01DA026964, and R01DA026505 to Kent A. Kiehl. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Compliance with ethical standards

All participants provided written, informed consent prior to their inclusion in the study and were compensated at an hourly rate comparable to pay rates for work within the facilities. All procedures and materials were approved by the University of New Mexico Institutional Review Board (IRB) and thus have been performed in accordance with the ethical standards of the Declaration of Helsinki.

Conflict of interest

The authors do not have any financial conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samantha J. Fede
    • 1
    • 2
  • Carla L. Harenski
    • 2
  • Jana Schaich Borg
    • 3
  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
    • 3
  • Vikram Rao
    • 2
  • Brendan M. Caldwell
    • 2
  • Prashanth K. Nyalakanti
    • 2
  • Michael R. Koenigs
    • 4
  • Jean Decety
    • 5
  • Vince D. Calhoun
    • 1
    • 2
  • Kent A. Kiehl
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.University of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  2. 2.Mind Research NetworkAlbuquerqueUSA
  3. 3.Duke UniversityDurhamUSA
  4. 4.University of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  5. 5.University of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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