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A Psychopath’s Brain on fMRI

A Psychopath's Brain on fMRIOur newest blogger, Dr. Kelly McAleer, has an interesting two-part post about the use of fMRI imaging technologies to try and detect psychopathology in criminals:

In my last post, I discussed how Dr. Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist, is using fMRI technology to detect brain abnormalities in people with psychopathy. His participants are prison inmates who score high on the PCL-R, a psychodiagnostic measure used to assess psychopathy. Once he determines that the participant is, in fact, a psychopath based on their PCL-R score, he takes scans of their brains using an fMRI to determine if there are brain differences between psychopathic participants and normal controls. He has found defects in the paralimbic system that he believes relate to psychopathy.

Interestingly, Dr. Kiehl’s research is being used by perpetrators to avoid prison or to reduce sentencing. One such case has plagued the Chicago area for over two decades. Brian Dugan, a 52-year-old man with a 13-year crime spree, including murders, rapes, arson, and burglaries, spanning the 1970s and 80s finally went to trial for his crimes in late 2009. For those interested in death penalty laws, this case has a lot of history, and contributed to the moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois due to the wrongful conviction of three men for one of the murders (Jeanine Nicarico) that Dugan committed.

And she asks the inevitable question when it comes to probing the biology of the brain and its connection to human behavior:

If psychopathy has definitive brain coordinates, can it be classified as an official mental illness? Moreover, if so, can it be used to claim the insanity plea in court cases?

These last two are harder to answer. Right now, psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder cannot be used in the insanity defense as primary diagnoses that contributed to the instant offense (crime committed). However, if there are brain abnormalities it seems likely that perpetrators and defense lawyers will attempt to use these fMRI results to support the plea of insanity.

I’m not sure what the ramifications of finding such brain abnormalities will be. It seems likely that if such research findings hold up over time, they will find a way into court cases as a new legitimate defense.

But what could be even more interesting is what the future holds. If we can detect such abnormalities in childhood or adolescence, perhaps we could prevent the individual from actually “turning into” a psychopath through a specific treatment program. Instead of locking people up after the fact, we could turn a societal eye toward prevention and help people long before they become a burden on the criminal justice system.

A fascinating read, check it out:

Part 1: The Brain of a Psychopath: Using fMRI Technology to Detect Brain Abnormalities

Part 2: The Brain of a Psychopath: Using fMRI Technology to Detect Brain Abnormalities, Part II

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A Psychopath’s Brain on fMRI

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). A Psychopath’s Brain on fMRI. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Mar 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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