A small study by a team of doctors at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London has shed light on a brain pathway abnormality that occurs among psychopaths.
Previous studies have linked brain dysfunction with psychopathy. Regions including the amygdale (associated with emotions, fear and aggression) and the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with decision making) have both been suggested to be involved in psychopathic behavior. However, the uncinate fasciculus, a white matter tract connecting the two regions had not been studied in psychopaths; largely because the technology that would allow an in vivo study did not exist.
The King’s College team, comprised of Professor Declan Murphy and Doctors Michael Craig and Marco Catani, made use of a new technique called in vivo diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DT-MRI) tractography to study the brains of nine psychopaths who were imprisoned for crimes including rape, murder and false imprisonment and an equal number of healthy controls, matched on the basis of age and IQ.
Dr Michael Craig explains the potential for the research:
‘If replicated by larger studies the significance of these findings cannot be overestimated. The suggestion of a clear structural deficit in the brains of psychopaths has profound implications for clinicians, research scientists and the criminal justice system.
The findings showed that in comparison to the matched controls, the brains of psychopaths exhibited “a significant reduction in the integrity of the small particles that make up the structure of the UF”. They also showed that there was a positive correlation in the degree of abnormality in the UF structure and the degree of psychopathy present in the individual.
Dr Craig noted that the findings provide an excellent starting point for future studies but he urged caution in extrapolating results of the study due to the small number of :
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.
Results of the study will be published in an article entitled “Altered connections on the road to psychopathy”, in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.