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Damage to the Amygdala: Functions, Symptoms, and Treatments

Doctors looking at brain scan showing damage to amygdala

Damage to the amygdala can cause problems with memory processing, emotional reactions, and even decision-making.

In this article, you will learn more about the most common symptoms that amygdala damage can cause. But first, we’ll give you a brief overview of the amygdala’s most important functions.

Functions of the Amygdala

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped collection of neurons located deep inside the temporal lobe.

The amygdala forms a crucial part of the limbic system, a group of structures involved in emotional reactions. It is mainly responsible for processing fear; however, the amygdala also plays a role in several other important functions.

When we are exposed to a fearful or dangerous stimulus, this information is sent directly to the amygdala. The amygdala then passes those signals on to other areas, such as the hypothalamus, which activates the body’s “flight or fight” response.

Interestingly, the amygdala can process fearful situations faster than the cerebral cortex can. This means that our bodies usually react to danger before we are consciously aware of it or have time to think.

The amygdala also contributes to higher cognitive functions as well, such as:

  • Forming and storing long-term, emotional memories
  • Learning new information
  • Decision-making

Therefore, damage to the amygdala can lead to problems with each of these processes.

Symptoms of Damage to the Amygdala

Damage to the amygdala can cause serious problems in a person’s emotional life. Below are some of the most common symptoms of amygdala damage.

Impaired Decision-Making

man struggling to choose between donut and salad

Damage to the amygdala can impair a person’s ability to make safe decisions. In particular, it seems to cause a person to lose their natural aversion to risk and loss.

For example, one popular tool used to study decision-making skills is the Iowa Gambling Task. In this task, participants select cards from different decks to gain the most money. Some decks have small rewards and small penalties, but some have larger rewards and larger penalties.

When this test was used on healthy patients, the participants learned to choose the decks with smaller penalties, because there is less risk associated. However, patients with amygdala damage did not avoid the decks with large penalties, even when their decisions resulted in overall monetary loss.

Researchers believe this occurs because the amygdala was not triggering the autonomic responses that make a person less likely to choose a riskier option. Without these cues, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, the person will not adjust their behavior.

This can explain why patients with amygdala damage seem so impulsive.

Memory Loss

The hippocampus and the amygdala work closely together to process memories. The amygdala encodes the emotional aspect of a memory, whereas the hippocampus encodes the context.

This combination strengthens the overall memory. That may explain why memories of life-changing events such as weddings are often clearer than other, more mundane occurrences.

However, if the amygdala becomes damaged, this double encoding cannot happen. This can make it harder for the brain to sort which memories are important. As a result, more memory loss can occur.

Hypervigilance

Young woman sitting in living room looking nervous because she has hypervigilance after damage to the amygdala

©iStock/tommaso79

Damage to the amygdala typically causes a decreased fear response. However, sometimes the opposite is true.

Researchers have found that lesions on the amygdala can cause hypervigilance in response to perceived fear in others. In other words, the person with amygdala damage becomes sensitive to minor facial expressions, interpreting them as a sign of a possible threat.

Since these dangers are not real, the person usually is in a constant state of anxiety. However, unlike patients with paranoia, a hypervigilant person understands there is no actual threat. They just cannot control their physical response.

Treating Amygdala Damage

There is no direct way to treat damage to the amygdala. But there are some methods that can help mitigate the effects. Three of the most effective treatments include:

  • Psychotherapy. If you struggle with impulsivity, a psychologist can teach you techniques that will help you learn how to evaluate risks. While you can’t rely on autonomic signals from your amygdala anymore, you can compensate by making yourself accountable to another person.
  • Medication. In addition, there are some medications that can help reduce hypervigilance and impulsivity after amygdala damage. If therapy does not seem to help, these drugs might be worth looking into. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist for more information.
  • Deep Brain Stimulation. Some recent studies have shown promise using deep brain stimulation to treat symptoms of amygdala damage. Specifically, deep brain stimulation can help relieve some psychological and behavioral side effects, such as hypervigilance.

It should be noted that deep brain stimulation is an invasive treatment and will not work for all types of amygdala damage. It seems to work best with only a certain set of symptoms. Therefore, you should consult your doctor first to find out if this treatment is a viable option for you.

Understanding Damage to the Amygdala

The amygdala helps control our fear response, but it also plays a crucial role in many other cognitive functions. Therefore, damage to the amygdala can cause serious problems, such as poor decision-making and impaired emotional memories.

Fortunately, with the right combination of therapy and medication, you can reduce the symptoms of amygdala damage and get back control of your life. Good luck!

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