Psychopathic wiring: Disturbed differences

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  • Published: May 1, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Psychopathic wiring: Disturbed differences

Incarcerated psychopaths

Psychopathy is characterised as a personality disorder in which the afflicted lacks empathy for other people, feels no remorse for their actions regardless of whether they cause harm and in extreme cases leads to criminality. Now, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to reveal that the

Psychopathy is characterised as a personality disorder in which the afflicted lacks empathy for other people, feels no remorse for their actions regardless of whether they cause harm and in extreme cases leads to criminality. Now, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to reveal that the "circuitry" in the brains of criminal psychopaths is different from that in others.

There have been many studies over the years on the nature and origin of psychopathy. Common to most is that they investigated only a very limited number of individuals. Moreover, earlier studies tended to consider complex phenomena and behaviour. Now, Jean Decety of the University of Chicago and colleagues, Laurie Skelly and Kent Kiehl, have examined what he describes as a "simple and yet critical condition" in psychopathy, namely how do such people perceive and react to pain or distress in others. The team carried out a case-control study of brain activation patterns using a 1.5 Tesla MRI machine of eighty incarcerated psychopaths and healthy individuals. They were all shown dynamic stimuli depicting individuals being harmed and facial expressions associated with pain.

Empathy triggers

In "normal" individuals seeing another person in pain or distress usually triggers feelings of empathy in normal, non-combative or non-competitive situations. "Empathy shapes the landscape of our social and moral lives," Decety explains. "It can motivate helping others in distress; it plays an essential role in inhibiting aggression, and it facilitates cooperation between members of a similar species." Understanding why psychopaths do not experience such empathy will not only lead to insights around this "condition" but could also help improve our understanding of the brain in healthy people.

Decety and colleagues found that there was significantly less activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and brainstem relative to other people tested, who were considered healthy, normal controls. Conversely and surprisingly there was greater activation of the insula. "The major difference in brain response between psychopaths compared to controls during the perception of others in pain was the lack of engagement of regions in the brainstem, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)," Decety says. This confirms that the vmPFC/OFC region in psychopaths is dysfunctional leading to the familiar definition of a lack of conscience, moral insensitivity and little or no empathy.

Insulated insula

The response of the insula was a surprise as earlier studies had hinted at it playing a critical role in pain empathy. A possible conclusion from this surprising aspect of the study is that rather than being unaware of others' pain, psychopaths are emotionally aware but the empathy does not "register" in other regions making them aware but emotionally immune, it seems.

"We need to engage in more research to better understand what motivates criminal behaviour," says Decety. "I need to add that, not all psychopaths are criminals, nor all criminals are psychopaths!" Much more work needs to be done, concedes Decety. He suggests that techniques other than fMRI will be needed to reproduce the findings, certainly if such studies are ever to be considered as evidence in criminal trials.

Related Links

JAMA Psych 2013, online: "Brain response to empathy-eliciting scenarios involving pain in incarcerated individuals with psychopathy"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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