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Study: Psychopaths' brains differ in structure, function

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     Dec 1, 2011 in Science
Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of New Mexico and The Mind Research Network found Images of psychopathic prisoners' brains showed less connectivity, suggesting neurological causes for antisocial behavior.
The collaborative UW-Madison, UNM and MRN team studied diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of prisoners in a Wisconsin medium-security corrections facility and noted reduced structural integrity in white matter and less coordinated activity between the amygdala, the part of the brain which mediates fear and anxiety, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), where feelings of guilt and empathy arise, ScienceDaily reported about the findings detailed in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Assistant professor of psychiatry Michael Koenigs of the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health explained,
"This is the first study to show both structural and functional differences in the brains of people diagnosed with psychopathy. Those two structures in the brain, which are believed to regulate emotion and social behavior, seem to not be communicating as they should."
In this study the team compared images made by a portable MRI scanner of the brains of 20 prisoners diagnosed with psychopathy and 20 others without psychopathy diagnoses.
UW-Madison psychology Professor Joseph Newman who has worked extensively in the Wisconsin corrections system concluded from the differences the team found in the psychopathic prisoners' brain scans,
"The combination of structural and functional abnormalities provides compelling evidence that the dysfunction observed in this crucial social-emotional circuitry is a stable characteristic of our psychopathic offenders. I am optimistic that our ongoing collaborative work will shed more light on the source of this dysfunction and strategies for treating the problem."
The findings of reduced connectivity in the brains of psychopathic prisoners align with the results of an earlier study by the team that showed psychopaths and patients with known vmPFC damage exhibited similar decision-making, according to Newman.
According to the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, psychopathic and antisocial tendencies are often measured and assessed by professionals using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), and include: a history or victimizing others; lack of empathy; lack of a sense of guilt; egocentricity and shallow emotions; frequent lying; frequent violating of social norms; and a disregard for laws.
More about psychopath, Psychopaths, psychopaths brains, Neurology, Neurological disorders
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