Researchers have learned that a psychopaths brain structure is significantly different from others. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers discovered the variance studying images of prisoners’ brains.
The results could help explain the callous and impulsive anti-social behavior exhibited by some psychopaths.
The study showed that psychopaths have reduced connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the part of the brain responsible for sentiments such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which reconciles fear and anxiety.
Structural changes in the brain were confirmed using two different types of brain images.
Diffusion tensor images (DTI) showed reduced structural integrity in the white matter fibers connecting the two areas, while a second type of image that maps brain activity, a functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI), showed less coordinated activity between the vmPFC and the amygdala.
“This is the first study to show both structural and functional differences in the brains of people diagnosed with psychopathy,” says Michael Koenigs.
“Those two structures in the brain, which are believed to regulate emotion and social behavior, seem to not be communicating as they should.”
Investigators compared the brains of 20 prisoners with a diagnosis of psychopathy with the brains of 20 other prisoners who committed similar crimes but were not diagnosed with psychopathy.
“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,” Newman says.
“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 study, published in the most recent Journal of Neuroscience, builds on earlier work by Newman and Koenigs that showed that psychopaths’ decision-making mirrors that of patients with known damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).
This bolsters evidence that problems in that part of the brain are connected to the disorder.
“The decision-making study showed indirectly what this study shows directly – that there is a specific brain abnormality associated with criminal psychopathy,” Koenigs adds.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison