Psychopaths have 'distinct' brains

2012-05-08 10:43

London - Scientists who scanned the brains of men convicted of murder, rape and violent assaults have found the strongest evidence yet that psychopaths have structural abnormalities in their brains.

The researchers, based at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, said the differences in psychopaths' brains mark them out even from other violent criminals with anti-social personality disorders (ASPD), and from healthy non-offenders.

Nigel Blackwood, who led the study, said the ability to use brain scans to identify and diagnose this sub-group of violent criminals has important implications for treatment.

The study showed that psychopaths, who are characterised by a lack of empathy, had less grey matter in the areas of the brain important for understanding other peoples' emotions.

While cognitive and behavioural treatments may benefit people with anti-social personality disorders, the same approach may not work for psychopaths with brain damage, Blackwood said.


"To get a clear idea of which treatments are working, you've got to clearly define what people are like going into the treatment programmes," he said in a telephone interview.

Essi Viding a professor in the psychology and language sciences department of University College London, who was not involved in Blackwood's study, said it provided "weighty new evidence" about the importance of distinguishing psychopathic from non-psychopathic people rather than grouping them together.

The findings also have implications for the justice system, because linking psychopathy to brain function raises the prospect of arguing a defence of insanity.

Interest in what goes on inside the heads of violent criminals has been sharpened by the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who massacred 77 people last July.

Two court-appointed psychiatric teams who examined Breivik came to opposite conclusions about his mental health. The killer himself has railed being called insane.

Blackwood's team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 44 violent adult male offenders in Britain who had already been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorders.

The crimes they had committed included murder, rape, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm.

Moral behaviour

Of the 44 men scanned, 17 met the diagnosis for ASPD plus psychopathy and 27 did not. The researchers also scanned the brains of 22 healthy non-offenders.

The results showed that the psychopaths' brains had significantly less grey matter in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles than the brains of the non-psychopathic offenders and non-offenders.

These areas of the brain are important for understanding other people's emotions and intentions, and are activated when people think about moral behaviour, the researchers said.

Damage to these areas is linked with a lack of empathy, a poor response to fear and distress and a lack of self-conscious emotions such as guilt or embarrassment.

Lindsay Thomson, a professor of forensic psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in this study, said Blackwood's findings add to evidence that psychopathy is a distinct neuro-developmental brain disorder.

Research shows that most violent crimes are committed by a small group of persistent male offenders with ASPD.

In England and Wales, for example, around half of male prisoners meet diagnostic criteria for ASPD. A major review of studies covering 23 000 prisoners from 62 countries conducted in 2002 found that 47% had anti-social personality disorder.

Behaviour differences

Such people typically react in an aggressive way to frustration or perceived threats, but most are not psychopaths, the researchers wrote in a summary of their study, which was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry journal.

There are clear behaviour differences among people with ASPD depending on whether they also have psychopathy. Their patterns of offending are different, suggesting the need for a separate approach to treatment.

"We describe those without psychopathy as 'hot-headed' and those with psychopathy as 'cold-hearted'," Blackwood said.

"The 'cold-hearted' psychopathic group begin offending earlier, engage in a broader range and greater density of offending behaviours, and respond less well to treatment programmes in adulthood compared to the 'hot-headed' group."

  • Mpho - 2012-05-08 11:08

    Now this shows that being evil might just be in your genes and not a choice that one makes. does this mean we should forgive all the rapists and murderers out there? I mean, it's not like they mean it...

      ludlowdj - 2012-05-09 11:55

      No it just means that they honestly and genuinely may have believed what they were doing was right even if it wasn't and indicates that in some instances the person was in deed helpless to stop the crime from happening. What it comes down to is that these people need to be hospitalized not put in prison as the US loves to do.

      Jonathan - 2012-05-09 15:46

      No it quite simply means there is a neurological reason for why some people are predisposed to committing criminal offenses. What conclusion you want to draw from that is up to you. Personally, I'd just think it means restructuring treatment plans to accommodate for these people: namely investigating in research to see if they can be treated. In the mean time prison will have to do as it serves to protect the rest of society

  • Aquarius3811 - 2012-05-08 12:04

    Thats strange... cause if you put all the photographs of all the psychopaths throughout history next to one another(not they I have any photos, but if you could), you will notice they are all funny looking... seems like it comes down to a self confidence issue... and of course genetics. Then again the professional psychopaths go into politics and government! :P

  • Tony Lapson - 2012-05-08 12:37

    I recall there being a study done on "psychopathic brain structural abnormalities" not being restricted to psychopaths. It showed that even some of the worlds greatest minds have a "criminally structured brain" yet with none of them being criminals. It went on to say that the physical structure and abnormal enlargement/reduction in certain areas of the brain does not cause criminal activity. It said that it is the networking of electrodes in these sections (which develop specific pathways throughout your life depending on your upbringing and life experiences) which may bring out the worse in people. My point is "GENES ARE NOT AN ESCUSE FOR CRIMINAL BEHAVIOUR." The challenges that people face in society is what makes people the way they are.

      zane.zeiler - 2012-05-08 14:24

      I think it's a combination of both, I believe that a person with a genetic disposition will have a greater chance of becoming a criminal in a violent society, it is both a combination of nature & nurture for otherwise you could assume that every single individual with a negative upbringing would inherently be a bad person which is not the case at all, there are lots of good people around us with very bad history's...

      Tony Lapson - 2012-05-08 15:15

      Too right. But I cant help but wonder how genetic evolution occurs (specifically with cognitive functions) unless there was an environmental factor in the lives of ancestors where these genes first started making an appearance. I know, the "which came first: the egg or the chicken" way of looking at things. My big question is, "How is current society, going to affect future generations." and are we (possibly) on a downward spiral of moral values and empathy in general, whether it is influenced by genes, or the world we live in. We live in an age where you have to struggle to survive. Not in the sense of literally fending off enemies and 'the wild' to survive, but on a deeper psychological level.

      zane.zeiler - 2012-05-08 16:35

      Good question, but one must take into account how even just a few hundred years ago (middle ages) children grew up in much more violent societies as they do now (public beheadings, witch hunts etc.) but somehow we are much more empathetic today and still managed to advance for the better, so IMO any psychological issues we have in our current society we will still overcome and evolve for the better.

  • veritas.odium.paret - 2012-05-08 17:23

    I'm not a psychopath.

  • hashem.alghaili - 2012-05-08 19:36

    After a man committed a crime, his lawyer proved that is wasn't him, it was something natural and scientific. Sometimes unreliable studies give an excuse for criminals to justify their crimes by the name of science, and it really works for them. I personally believe that such studies shouldn't be conducted and resources shouldn't be wasted on them.

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