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1.  Counterfactual thinking in moral judgment: an experimental study 
Counterfactual thinking is thinking about a past that did not happen. This is often the case in “if only…” situations, where we wish something had or had not happened. To make a choice in a moral decision-making situation is particularly hard and, therefore, may be often associated with the imagination of a different outcome. The main aim of the present study is to investigate counterfactual thinking in the context of moral reasoning. We used a modified version of Greene's moral dilemmas test, studying both the time needed to provide a counterfactual in the first and third person and the type of given response (in context-out of context) in a sample of 90 healthy subjects. We found a longer response time for personal vs. impersonal moral dilemmas. This effect was enhanced in the first person perspective, while in the elderly there was an overall slowing of response time. Out of context/omissive responses were more frequent in the case of personal moral dilemmas presented in the first person version, with females showing a marked increase in this kind of response. These findings suggest that gender and perspective have a critical role in counterfactual thinking in the context of moral reasoning, and may have implications for the understanding of gender-related inclinations as well as differences in moral judgment.
doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00451
PMCID: PMC4033199  PMID: 24904468
moral dilemma; decision making; gender; aging; utilitaristic reasoning
2.  Observed Manipulation Enhances Left Fronto-Parietal Activations in the Processing of Unfamiliar Tools 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(6):e99401.
Tools represent a special class of objects, as functional details of tools can afford certain actions. In addition, information gained via prior experience with tools can be accessed on a semantic level, providing a basis for meaningful object interactions. Conceptual representations of tools also encompass knowledge about tool manipulation which can be acquired via direct (active manipulation) or indirect (observation of others manipulating objects) motor experience. The present study aimed to explore the impact of observation of manipulation on the neural processing of previously unfamiliar, manipulable objects. Brain activity was assessed by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging while participants accomplished a visual matching task involving pictures of the novel objects before and after they received object-related training. Three training session in which subjects observed an experimenter manipulating one set of objects and visually explored another set of objects were used to make subjects familiar with the tools and to allow the formation of new tool representations. A control object set was not part of the training. Training-related brain activation increases were found for observed manipulation objects compared to not trained objects in a left-hemispheric network consisting of inferior frontal gyrus (iFG) pars opercularis and triangularis and supramarginal/angular gyrus. This illustrates that direct manipulation experience is not required to elicit tool-associated activation changes in the action system. While the iFG activation might indicate a close relationship between the areas involved in tool representation and those involved in observational knowledge acquisition, the parietal activation is discussed in terms of non-semantic effects of object affordances and hand-tool spatial relationships.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099401
PMCID: PMC4049811  PMID: 24911053
3.  Frontopolar cortex and decision-making efficiency: comparing brain activity of experts with different professional background during an exploration-exploitation task 
An optimal balance between efficient exploitation of available resources and creative exploration of alternatives is critical for adaptation and survival. Previous studies associated these behavioral drives with, respectively, the dopaminergic mesocorticolimbic system and frontopolar-intraparietal networks. We study the activation of these systems in two age and gender-matched groups of experienced decision-makers differing in prior professional background, with the aim to understand the neural bases of individual differences in decision-making efficiency (performance divided by response time). We compare brain activity of entrepreneurs (who currently manage the organization they founded based on their venture idea) and managers (who are constantly involved in making strategic decisions but have no venture experience) engaged in a gambling-task assessing exploitative vs. explorative decision-making. Compared with managers, entrepreneurs showed higher decision-making efficiency, and a stronger activation in regions of frontopolar cortex (FPC) previously associated with explorative choice. Moreover, activity across a network of regions previously linked to explore/exploit tradeoffs explained individual differences in choice efficiency. These results suggest new avenues for the study of individual differences in the neural antecedents of efficient decision-making.
doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00927
PMCID: PMC3897871  PMID: 24478664
decision-making; efficiency; exploration-exploitation; fMRI; frontopolar cortex
4.  Sensitivity of revised diagnostic criteria for the behavioural variant of frontotemporal dementia 
Brain  2011;134(9):2456-2477.
Based on the recent literature and collective experience, an international consortium developed revised guidelines for the diagnosis of behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia. The validation process retrospectively reviewed clinical records and compared the sensitivity of proposed and earlier criteria in a multi-site sample of patients with pathologically verified frontotemporal lobar degeneration. According to the revised criteria, ‘possible’ behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia requires three of six clinically discriminating features (disinhibition, apathy/inertia, loss of sympathy/empathy, perseverative/compulsive behaviours, hyperorality and dysexecutive neuropsychological profile). ‘Probable’ behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia adds functional disability and characteristic neuroimaging, while behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia ‘with definite frontotemporal lobar degeneration’ requires histopathological confirmation or a pathogenic mutation. Sixteen brain banks contributed cases meeting histopathological criteria for frontotemporal lobar degeneration and a clinical diagnosis of behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies or vascular dementia at presentation. Cases with predominant primary progressive aphasia or extra-pyramidal syndromes were excluded. In these autopsy-confirmed cases, an experienced neurologist or psychiatrist ascertained clinical features necessary for making a diagnosis according to previous and proposed criteria at presentation. Of 137 cases where features were available for both proposed and previously established criteria, 118 (86%) met ‘possible’ criteria, and 104 (76%) met criteria for ‘probable’ behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia. In contrast, 72 cases (53%) met previously established criteria for the syndrome (P < 0.001 for comparison with ‘possible’ and ‘probable’ criteria). Patients who failed to meet revised criteria were significantly older and most had atypical presentations with marked memory impairment. In conclusion, the revised criteria for behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia improve diagnostic accuracy compared with previously established criteria in a sample with known frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Greater sensitivity of the proposed criteria may reflect the optimized diagnostic features, less restrictive exclusion features and a flexible structure that accommodates different initial clinical presentations. Future studies will be needed to establish the reliability and specificity of these revised diagnostic guidelines.
doi:10.1093/brain/awr179
PMCID: PMC3170532  PMID: 21810890
behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia; diagnostic criteria; frontotemporal lobar degeneration; FTD; pathology
5.  The Neural Bases of Social Intention Understanding: The Role of Interaction Goals 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(7):e42347.
Decoding others' intentions is a crucial aspect of social cognition. Neuroimaging studies suggest that inferring immediate goals engages the neural system for action understanding (i.e. mirror system), while the decoding of long-term intentions requires the system subserving the attribution of mental states (i.e. mentalizing). A controversial issue, stimulated by recent inconsistent results, concerns whether the two systems are concurrently vs. exclusively involved in intention understanding. This issue is particularly relevant in the case of social interactions, whose processing has been mostly, but not uncontroversially, associated with the mentalizing system. We tested the alternative hypothesis that the relative contribution of the two systems in intention understanding may also depend on the shared goal of interacting agents. To this purpose, 27 participants observed social interactions differing in their cooperative vs. affective shared goal during functional-Magnetic-Resonance-Imaging. The processing of both types of interactions activated the right temporo-parietal junction involved in mentalizing on action goals. Additionally, whole-brain and regions-of-interest analyses showed that the action understanding system (inferior prefrontal-parietal cortex) was more strongly activated by cooperative interactions, while the mentalizing-proper system (medial prefrontal cortex) was more strongly engaged by affective interactions. These differences were modulated by individual differences in empathizing. Both systems can thus be involved in understanding social intentions, with a relative weighting depending on the specific shared goal of the interaction.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042347
PMCID: PMC3407127  PMID: 22848759
6.  Understanding Others' Regret: A fMRI Study 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(10):e7402.
Previous studies showed that the understanding of others' basic emotional experiences is based on a “resonant” mechanism, i.e., on the reactivation, in the observer's brain, of the cerebral areas associated with those experiences. The present study aimed to investigate whether the same neural mechanism is activated both when experiencing and attending complex, cognitively-generated, emotions. A gambling task and functional-Magnetic-Resonance-Imaging (fMRI) were used to test this hypothesis using regret, the negative cognitively-based emotion resulting from an unfavorable counterfactual comparison between the outcomes of chosen and discarded options. Do the same brain structures that mediate the experience of regret become active in the observation of situations eliciting regret in another individual? Here we show that observing the regretful outcomes of someone else's choices activates the same regions that are activated during a first-person experience of regret, i.e. the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and hippocampus. These results extend the possible role of a mirror-like mechanism beyond basic emotions.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007402
PMCID: PMC2756584  PMID: 19826471

Results 1-6 (6)