Psychopathy is strongly associated with serious criminal behavior (rape, murder, etc.) and repeat offending but despite its heinous aspects the biological basis of psychopathy has remained poorly understood. Some investigators also attribute social causes in explaining antisocial behaviours. To date, nobody has investigated the 'connectivity' between the specific brain regions implicated in psychopathy.
The new research investigated the brain biology of psychopaths with convictions that included attempted murder, manslaughter, multiple rape with strangulation and false imprisonment. Using the Diffusion Tensor Imaging technique (DT-MRI) the researchers say they have highlighted biological differences in the brain which may underpin these types of behavior and provide a more comprehensive understanding of criminal psychopathy.
Dr Michael Craig said, "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."
Earlier studies had suggested that dysfunction of specific brain regions might underpin psychopathy. Such areas of the brain were identified as the amygdale, ie 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) tractography to analyse the UF in psychopaths.
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 behaviours.
Craig added: 'This study is part of an ongoing programme 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.'
The results of their study are outlined in the paper 'Altered connections on the road to psychopathy', published in Molecular Psychiatry.