Brain scans of adolescent boys with conduct disorder reveal brain structure differences that may be linked to their aggressive and antisocial behaviors, according to new research out of the UK.
Neuroscientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure particular regions in the brains of 65 teenage boys with conduct disorder as well as 27 teenage boys who did not show any symptoms of the disorder.
“Studies such as this are tremendously important in understanding the causes of conduct disorder. Only when we are confident that we understand why the disorder develops can we apply this knowledge to the further development and evaluation of treatments.
“The disorder has a devastating impact on families and communities, and at the moment, we have few effective treatments,” said Dr. Andy Calder from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
The research findings revealed that the amygdala and insula — two brain regions associated with emotion perception, empathy and recognizing distress in others — were significantly smaller in teens with antisocial behavior.
The brain differences were apparent no matter the age of onset for the disorder, whether it surfaced during childhood or adolescence.
Significantly, the teens with the worst behavior problems had the greatest reduction in insula volume.
Previous studies have shown that the volumes of certain brain structures associated with emotional behavior have been linked to childhood-onset conduct disorder. However, adolescence-onset conduct disorder was typically thought to manifest solely by imitating badly behaved peers.
The current research suggests otherwise and offers a possible neurological basis for these challenging problems.
“Changes in grey matter volume in these areas of the brain could explain why teenagers with conduct disorder have difficulties in recognizing emotions in others. Further studies are now needed to investigate whether these changes in brain structure are a cause or a consequence of the disorder,” the researchers noted.
The research group had previously proven that abnormal patterns of brain activity were apparent in individuals with both forms of conduct disorder, but this new research goes even further to reveal that differences in brain structure are linked to the disorder as well.
“We hope that our results will contribute to existing psychosocial strategies for detecting children at high risk for developing antisocial behavior.”
Source: University of Cambridge