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Empathy processes seen lacking in psychopaths’ brains

April 25, 2013
Courtesy of University of Chicago
and World Science staff

Pris­on­ers who are psy­chopaths lack the bas­ic brain pro­cesses that let them care for oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

“A marked lack of em­pa­thy is a hall­mark char­ac­ter­is­tic of in­di­vid­u­als with psy­chopa­thy,” said the lead au­thor of the stu­dy, Jean De­cety, a neu­ro­sci­ent­ist at the Uni­vers­ity of Chi­ca­go. “This is the first time that neu­ral pro­cesses as­so­ci­at­ed with em­path­ic pro­cess­ing have been di­rectly ex­am­ined in in­di­vid­u­als with psy­chop­a­thy, es­pe­cially in re­sponse to the per­cep­tion of oth­er peo­ple in pain or dis­tress.”

Psy­chop­a­thy af­fects an es­ti­mat­ed one per­cent of the U.S. gen­er­al popula­t­ion and 20 per­cent to 30 per­cent of the male and female U.S. pris­on popula­t­ion. Rel­a­tive to oth­er crim­i­nals, psy­chopaths are re­spon­si­ble for a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of re­pet­i­tive crime and vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers.

The study ap­peared on­line April 24 in the jour­nal JAMA Psy­chi­a­try and could help psy­chol­o­gists de­sign bet­ter treat­ment pro­grams for psy­chopaths, they added. They tested 80 male in­mates aged 18 to 50 at one pris­on, who vol­un­teered for the test and were as­sessed for psy­chop­a­thy us­ing stand­ard tests.

The par­ti­ci­pants were then stud­ied with scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy known as func­tion­al MRI, to learn their re­sponses to sce­nar­i­os de­pict­ing peo­ple be­ing in­ten­tion­ally hurt. They were al­so as­sessed on their re­sponses to see­ing short videos of fa­cial ex­pres­sions show­ing pain. High-psy­chop­a­thy par­ti­ci­pants were found to show sig­nif­i­cantly less ac­tiva­t­ion in brain ar­eas known as the ven­tro­me­dial pre­fron­tal cor­tex, lat­er­al or­bit­o­front­al cor­tex, amyg­da­la and pe­ri­aque­duc­tal gray parts, but more ac­ti­vity in areas called the the stria­tum and in­su­la.

This high re­sponse in the in­su­la was a sur­prise, the sci­ent­ists said, as this re­gion is crit­ic­ally in­volved in emo­tion and “so­matic res­o­nance”—the map­ping of oth­ers’ sensa­t­ions on­to one’s own body. 

On the oth­er hand the fee­ble re­sponse in the ven­tro­me­dial pre­fron­tal cor­tex and amyg­da­la was con­sist­ent with the lit­er­a­ture on psy­chop­a­thy, they added. The lat­ter re­gion is con­sidered im­por­tant for mon­i­tor­ing on­go­ing be­hav­ior, es­ti­mat­ing con­se­quenc­es and in­cor­po­rat­ing emo­tional learn­ing in­to mor­al decision-making, and plays a fun­da­men­tal role in em­pathy and valu­ing the well-be­ing of oth­ers.

“The neu­ral re­sponse to dis­tress of oth­ers such as pain is thought to re­flect an aver­sive re­sponse... that may act as a trig­ger to in­hib­it ag­gres­sion or prompt mo­tiva­t­ion to help,” the au­thors wrote in the pa­per. “Hence, ex­am­in­ing the neu­ral re­sponse of in­di­vid­u­als with psy­chop­a­thy as they view oth­ers be­ing harmed or ex­press­ing pain is an ef­fec­tive probe in­to the neu­ral pro­cesses un­der­ly­ing af­fec­tive and em­pa­thy deficits in psy­chop­a­thy.”


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Prisoners who are psychopaths lack the basic brain processes that let them care for others, according to a new study. “A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy,” said the lead author of the study, Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. “This is the first time that neural processes associated with empathic processing have been directly examined in individuals with psychopathy, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain or distress.” Psychopathy affects an estimated one percent of the U.S. general population and 20 percent to 30 percent of the male and female U.S. prison population. Relative to other criminals, psychopaths are responsible for a disproportionate amount of repetitive crime and violence in society. The study appears online April 24 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry and could help psychologists design better treatment programs for psychopaths, said the researchers. They tested 80 inmates aged 18 to 50 at one prison. The men volunteered for the test and were assessed for psychopathy using standard tests. The participants were then studied with scanning technology known as functional MRI, to learn their responses to scenarios depicting people being intentionally hurt. They were also assessed on their responses to seeing short videos of facial expressions showing pain. High-psychopathy participants were found to show significantly less activation in the brain areas known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala and periaqueductal gray parts, but more activity in the striatum and the insula. This high response in the insula was a surprise, the scientists said, as this region is critic ally involved in emotion and “somatic resonance”—the mapping of others’ sensations onto one’s own body. On the other hand the feeble response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala was consistent with the literature on psychopathy, they added. The latter region is important for monitoring ongoing behavior, estimating consequences and incorporating emotional learning into moral decision-making, and plays a fundamental role in empathic concern and valuing the well-being of others. “The neural response to distress of others such as pain is thought to reflect an aversive response in the observer that may act as a trigger to inhibit aggression or prompt motivation to help,” the authors wrote in the paper. “Hence, examining the neural response of individuals with psychopathy as they view others being harmed or expressing pain is an effective probe into the neural processes underlying affective and empathy deficits in psychopathy.” brains