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Kids Who Can't "See" Pain More Likely to Become Psychopaths

Update Date: May 02, 2013 12:46 PM EDT

Kids with behavioral problems often show reduced neural responses when shown images of others in pain, putting them at greater risk for later adult psychopathy.

Researchers say this pattern of reduced brain activity upon witnessing pain in others may be a neurobiological risk factor for psychopathy in adulthood, according to a new study published May 2 in the journal Current Biology.

While not all children with behavioral problems are the same, and children exhibiting this abnormal brain pattern will not necessarily become adult psychopaths, researchers note that many kids with conduct problems often outgrow their antisocial behaviors.

"Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain," researcher Essi Viding of University College London said in a news release.

However, Viding stressed that it's important to view the abnormal brain patterns in children as an "indicator of early vulnerability" and not "biological destiny".

"We know that children can be very responsive to interventions, and the challenge is to make those interventions even better, so that we can really help the children, their families, and their wider social environment," Viding explained.

Conduct problems can lead to major societal problems and include physical aggression, cruelty to others, and a lack of empathy or callousness.

Researchers noted that around 5 percent of children in the UK, where the study was conducted, qualify for a diagnosis of conduct problems.  However, researchers say very little is known about the underlying biology.

Viding and his team conducted fMRI scans on the brains of children to see how those with conduct problems differ in their response to seeing images of others in pain.

The brain scans revealed that children with behavioral problems show reduced responses to others' pain, specifically in regions of the brain tied to empathy.  Researchers also found a variation among children with conduct problems, with those judged as more callous showing lower brain activation.

"Our findings very clearly point to the fact that not all children with conduct problems share the same vulnerabilities; some may have neurobiological vulnerability to psychopathy, while others do not," Viding explained. "This raises the possibility of tailoring existing interventions to suit the specific profile of atypical processing that characterizes a child with conduct problems."

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