npj Parkinson's Disease (Mar 2021)

Human moral decision-making through the lens of Parkinson’s disease

  • Giorgia Ponsi,
  • Marina Scattolin,
  • Riccardo Villa,
  • Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 7, no. 1
pp. 1 – 7


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Abstract Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the loss of dopaminergic neurons in the basal ganglia (BG) and thalamocortical circuitry. While defective motor control has long been considered the defining symptom of PD, mounting evidence indicates that the BG are fundamentally important for a multitude of cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes in addition to motor function. Here, we review alterations in moral decision-making in people with PD, specifically in the context of deceptive behavior. We report that PD patients exhibit two opposite behavioral patterns: hyper- and hypo-honesty. The hyper-honest subgroup engages in deception less often than matched controls, even when lying is associated with a monetary payoff. This behavioral pattern seems to be linked to dopaminergic hypo-activity, implying enhanced harm avoidance, risk aversion, non-impulsivity, and reduced reward sensitivity. On the contrary, the hypo-honest subgroup—often characterized by the additional diagnosis of impulse control disorders (ICDs) and dopamine dysregulation syndrome (DDS)—deceives more often than both PD patients without ICDs/DDS and controls. This behavioral pattern appears to be associated with dopaminergic hyperactivity, which underpins enhanced novelty-seeking, risk-proneness, impulsivity, and reward sensitivity. We posit that these two complementary behavioral patterns might be related to dysfunction of the dopaminergic reward system, leading to reduced or enhanced motivation to deceive. Only a few studies have directly investigated moral decision-making in PD and other neurodegenerative disorders affecting the BG, and further research on the causal role of subcortical structures in shaping moral behavior is needed.