Causes of Severe Antisocial Behavior Differ for Boys and Girls

The causes of severe antisocial behavior may differ between boys and girls, which could pave the way for new sex-specific treatments, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and several other European universities used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-techniques to map the brains of more than 200 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 to analyze differences in brain development between children with conduct disorder (CD) and a group of typically developing children (the control group).

Findings from the study, which involved 96 young people with CD and 104 typically developing young people, show that the brain’s prefrontal cortex — the region responsible for long-term planning, decision-making, and impulse control — is thinner in boys and girls with CD compared to typically developing boys and girls. The findings also show that young people with more severe forms of the condition have more abnormal brain structure.

Researchers also discovered that specific areas of the brain differ in structure between boys and girls with antisocial behavior. For example, some brain areas showed lower cortical thickness in boys with CD, but higher thickness in girls with CD.

This highlights, for the first time, that there may be sex differences in the brain-based causes of CD, according to the researchers.

CD is poorly understood and thought to be under-diagnosed and often untreated, the researchers noted. Symptoms range from lying and truancy to physical violence and weapon use at its more extreme end. It is thought that at least five percent of school age children are affected by the disorder, which is three times more common in boys than girls.

Previous studies have shown that around half of those who develop CD in childhood go on to show serious antisocial behavior or criminal behavior in adulthood.

Current treatments largely depend on parenting programs, as the condition is often attributed to poor parenting or growing up in a dysfunctional family.

The researchers behind the new study point out that although sometimes useful, these programs are not widely available and may not get to the root of the problem. No specific drug treatment exists yet for CD, although ADHD medication, such as Ritalin, is sometimes given.

“Our results indicate that the development of the brain is disrupted in boys and girls with severe antisocial behavior,” said senior author Dr. Graeme Fairchild from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology. “These findings suggest that the causes of severe antisocial behavior, and particularly the biological basis of these behaviors, may differ between boys and girls. This could lead to the development of sex-specific treatments or prevention programs for at-risk young people.”

The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Source: University of Bath