Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More on psychopaths: New research show their brains really are different!

Viewers of TV shows like "Criminal Minds" have been saying this for years when viewing episodes of the incredible, sadistic crimes committed by villains identified as 'psychopaths" by the BAU good guys: "There is something wrong with those guys". Well, it turns out, there is.

The new research
New research just completed by researchers from the U of New Mexico MIND institute, and a group from the U of Wisconsin School of Medicine compared the brains of 20 true psychopaths (not antisocial personality disorder) with 20 matched convicted criminals  in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections facility who did not fit the strict criteria for psychopathy. Using two different brain imaging technologies, fMRI and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI),  Dr. Kent Keihl (who I visited last summer in Albuquerque) and Dr. Michael Koenigs found that psychopaths had identifiable structural and functional deficits when compared to regular criminals.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is like a movie of the brain at work. Diffusion tensor imaging is designed to image the white matter (the connections) deep in the interior of the brain. fMRI analysis demonstrated that "ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the part of the brain responsible for sentiments such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, (a small structure deep in the center of the brain) which mediates fear and anxiety,, were NOT as active in psychopaths as in the convicted criminals who were not psychopaths. Further, the DTI images showed that the connections between those two critical brain regions were also less in the psychopath group.

The reason this matters

It has long been known that psychopaths lack empathy and are extreme risk takers, exhibiting abnormally low anxiety and fear. A common description includes the inability to learn from experience, poor impulse control, and a lack of remorse. Until now, these behavioral and character traits have been attributed to family history, substance abuse, and sometimes to "genetics" but without an adequate neuro-scientific foundation. Sentencing and "rehabilitation" decisions have been based on personal beliefs (or biases) and sometimes on psychological testing, which is only marginally better. Now, if  this research is confirmed by larger studies (the Wisconsin project is ongoing-personal communication), there will be a scientific neuro-imaging technology available for identifying the anatomical deficits inherent in psychopathy.  

The application to family law will provide courts and litigants with a non-fakable, reliable imaging technology to identify psychopathy and prevent the emotional and potentially violent damage that these guys (most psychopaths are male) do to children, their own or someone else's. The new research documents why treatment is ineffective and the psychopathic behavior is ongoing--their brains are both anatomically deficient and functionally defective in areas responsible for impulse control and empathy.  Until science advances further so that this kind of brain damage can be treated and corrected, courts will be limited to protecting the past and future victims of these individuals when they are identified.

One additional implication that Dr. Kiehl mentioned during our visit last summer: if these guys really are brain damaged, and now that can be scientifically proven, then can they be held responsible for their criminal acts under traditional criminal legal theory? Interesting cases ahead...

Journal Reference:
  1. Julian C. Motzkin, Joseph P. Newman, Kent A. Kiehl, Michael Koenigs. Reduced Prefrontal Connectivity in PsychopathyJournal of Neuroscience, 2011; 31 (48): 17348-17357 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4215-11.2011

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