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The Anatomy of a Psychopath

Jack the Ripper, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Charles Manson, the list goes on. We all wonder if something happened in the life of an individual to produce psychopathic tendencies, or was it a hardwired characteristic that lay dormant, awaiting an environment stimulus to explode and begin a cascade of terror?

A trio of British researchers may have found an answer as they discovered differences in the brain which may provide a biological explanation for psychopathy.

The research investigated the brain biology of psychopaths with convictions that included attempted murder, manslaughter, multiple rape with strangulation and false imprisonment.

Using a powerful imaging technique (DT-MRI) the researchers have highlighted biological differences in the brain which may underpin these types of behavior and provide a more comprehensive understanding of criminal psychopathy.

According to researcher Dr. Michael Craig, “if replicated by larger studies the significance of these findings cannot be underestimated. The suggestion of a clear structural deficit in the brains of psychopaths has profound implications for clinicians, research scientists and the criminal justice system.”

While psychopathy is strongly associated with serious criminal behavior (e.g., rape and murder) and repeat offending, the biological basis of psychopathy remains poorly understood. Also some investigators stress mainly social reasons to explain antisocial behaviors. To date, nobody has investigated the ‘connectivity’ between the specific brain regions implicated in psychopathy.

Earlier studies had suggested that dysfunction of specific brain regions might underpin psychopathy. Such areas of the brain were identified as the amygdala, i.e., the area associated with emotions, fear and aggression, and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the region which deals with decision making.

There is a white matter tract that connects the amygdala and OFC, which is called the uncinate fasciculus (UF). However, nobody had ever studied the UF in psychopaths. The team from King’s used an imaging method called in vivo diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DT-MRI also known as DTI) tractography to analyze the UF in psychopaths. DT-MRI is a type of MRI procedure that is used to map and characterize three-dimensional spaces in the brain and body.

They found a significant reduction in the integrity of the small particles that make up the structure of the UF of psychopaths, compared to control groups of people with the same age and IQ.

Also, the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy. These results suggest that psychopaths have biological differences in the brain which may help to explain their offending behaviors.

Dr. Craig added: “This study is part of an ongoing program of research into the biological basis of criminal psychopathy. It highlights that exciting developments in brain imaging such as DT-MRI now offer neuroscientists the potential to move towards a more coherent understanding of the possible brain networks that underlie psychopathy, and potentially towards treatments for this mental disorder.”

DTI has not been shown in followup studies to be a reliable method for diagnosing mental disorders. Psychopathy is typically diagnosed by agreement with a symptom checklist, most commonly for antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.

The results of this study are outlined in the paper ‘Altered connections on the road to psychopathy’, published in Molecular Psychiatry.

Source: King’s College London

The Anatomy of a Psychopath

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on August 5, 2009.


Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). The Anatomy of a Psychopath. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 20, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2017/08/05/the-anatomy-of-a-psychopath/7559.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 May 2019 (Originally: 5 Aug 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 May 2019
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