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Psychopaths’ Brains Unequipped For Caring

Update Date: Apr 24, 2013 03:54 PM EDT

The minds of psychopaths and serial killers have been the subjects of numerous research and studies. In an attempt to understand how humans can become so violent to and distant from other humans, researchers have focused particularly on the brain functions and wiring of psychopaths. In previous studies, researchers have found that the brain scans of serial killers were different than the brain scans of a normal human, suggesting that the changes in the brain, whether it was at birth or at an early stage of life led to unexplainable and horrifying behaviors. In the latest study to tackle the minds of psychopaths, a group of neuroscientists from the University of Chicago and the University of New Mexico, examined the "hardwiring" of psychopathic prisoners and discovered that their brains were not wired to be caring for others.

"A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy," Jean Decety, the lead author stated. Decety is the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago. "This is the first time that neural processes associated with empathic processing have been directly examined in individuals with psychopath, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain or distress."

The study recruited 80 prisoners from a correctional facility who were between the ages of 18 and 50. The prisoners were all volunteers and they took a test that measured their levels of psychopathy using standard guidelines of measurement. The experimenters followed up with an MRI to measure the volunteer's responses to scenarios of people being intentionally hurt. These scenarios were presented both verbally and visually via short clips on a screen.

The researchers found that the prisoners who scored higher on the psychopathy test had less activation in their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala and periaqueductal gray parts in the brain. These same prisoners had increased activation in the striatum and insula when compared to the control group. Although an increase in activity in the insula, which is associated with emotion and somatic resonance, was surprising, the researchers concluded that the lower activity levels in the other regions of the brain could have inhibit the individual's ability to be empathic towards others. They concluded that psychopathic individuals could not feel empathy due to their neurological makeups.

Roughly one percent of the United States' population has psychopathy, with 20 to 30 percent of the cases, including men and women, living in the prison system. The study was funded by a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and the findings were published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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