Offensive scans: Impulsiveness and delinquency

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  • Published: Jul 1, 2011
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Offensive scans: Impulsiveness and delinquency

No self control

Youthful character traits, such as impulsiveness, are common and often considered amusing until they lead to juvenile delinquency and youth criminality. Now, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brains of young offenders, of both impulsive and non-impulsive character hints at activity in a particular brain structure as being associated more commonly with the negative aspects of this personality trait.

Benjamin Shannon of Department of Radiology, at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri and colleagues, working with researchers in the Department of Psychiatry, at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, the Mind Research Network, and the Department of Psychology, at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, have revealed the potential neural basis for impulsive behaviour. The researchers suggest that, like wisdom, self-control is often thought to increase with age, but a chronic lack of self-control can evolve into criminal behaviour.

To uncover the neural basis of such a phenomenon, Shannon and colleagues carried out fMRI studies aimed at comparing the way the brains of juvenile offenders in a high-security facility behave in terms of connectivity relative to a non-incarcerated population.

"We scanned 107 incarcerated juveniles, between the ages of 14 and 18 years," Shannon told SpectroscopyNOW. "We then compared the results in that population to a group of 95 individuals from the community between the ages of 7 and 31. We saw that the pattern of brain activity associated with impulsivity in the juvenile offenders was related with age in the community sample - younger kids had "more impulsive" patterns of motor-planning functional connectivity," he adds. 

The researchers scanned the participant's brains as they rested quietly. They found that in the individuals known to be less impulsive, activity in the so-called "motor planning" regions of the brain, thought to be linked to planning movements, mirrored the activity of brain regions involved in attention and cognitive control. However, in the more impulsive participants, activity in those regions apparently correlated with activity in a brain network known as the "default mode" network. This region of the brain is active in spontaneous, unrestrained cognition.

What is normality?

The researchers also reported that among typically developing individuals, the patterns of brain activity in the motor planning regions was linked to age. Brain activity in younger individuals, they report, was more akin to that in the more impulsive offenders, whereas the activity in older individuals resembled that seen in less impulsive offenders. The team suggests that these findings could be used to help explain the behaviour of impulsive people. They say that it explain the link between impulsiveness and a desire for instant gratification compared to more reserved behaviour that is understands the long-term consequences of a particular action.

"This observation suggests that impulsivity in the offender population is a consequence of a delay in typical development, rather than a distinct abnormality," the team concludes.

"Our findings suggest that at least a portion of the impulsive behavior we often see in juvenile offenders can be explained by the way different parts of their brains communicate," Shannon told us. "You have the brain of a 7-year-old, at least in terms of this particular measure of motor-planning functional connectivity, in the body of a 15-year-old."

The team is currently in the process of planning its follow-up studies. They would like to be able to determine whether or not youths in the judicial system "grow out" of this brain connectivity pattern naturally, and if that's related to improved impulse control. A related area of concern that they would like to investigate regards the effects of treatment. "For example, if we have kids perform a task that causes them to co-activate motor-planning regions and the attention and control networks (for example, learning a musical instrument), can we cause those parts of the brain to communicate better, and nudge them along towards a more adult pattern of functional connectivity and behaviour?" Shannon asks. 



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

Youthful character traits, such as impulsiveness, are common and often considered amusing until they lead to juvenile delinquency and youth criminality. Now, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brains of young offenders, of both impulsive and non-impulsive character hints at activity in a particular brain structure as being associated more commonly with the negative aspects of this personality trait.
Youthful impulsiveness, not to be confused with juvenile delinquency

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