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Budding psychopaths? Study hints traits may be seen in kids' brains

Could little Johnny, that kid who always seems to be in trouble for hurting other children, be a psychopath in the making? Or is he just rambunctious? And if he’s at risk of becoming a future psychopath, could science catch it early, and head off a life of trouble?

A new study from British researchers suggests this may one day be possible. 

Adult psychopaths are known to be unable to place themselves in the position of those they hurt. They have little or no empathy. They can’t “feel your pain."

But “there is a lot of variability among children with conduct problems,” one of the researchers, Essi Viding, professor of psychology at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, told 

The study, published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, gathered a sample of 37 boys verified by surveys completed by teachers and parents to have serious conduct problems such as causing harm to others and uncaring attitudes toward others, and a control group of 18 boys who did not. The boys were aged 10 to 16.

The boys were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that depicts which areas of the brain are active in response to a stimulus. The boys were shown a series of 192 photos of hands and feet in pain, or no pain, situations. For example, an image might show a hand resting on a table top with a knife laying beside it, or the same hand on the table with the point of the knife blade about to pierce it.

As a group, the boys with serious conduct problems tended to show decreased activation in areas of the brain -- especially the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula -- that are critical for empathy for pain, in comparison to the control group of boys.

With lower empathy, they were less reactive to others’ pain. This could be the root of what the researchers call “callous traits.”

Reduced response to pain of other people, the researchers wrote, “could reflect an early neurobiological marker indexing risk for empathic deficits seen in adult psychopathy.”

If that sounds a little scary, like the Philip K. Dick novel “Minority Report” (made into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 2002), in which crime is predicted and future wrongdoers labeled and arrested before they offend, Viding and others in the field stress two points: any such future is a long way off, and that’s not the goal of the research.

For one thing, fMRI studies of psychopathy have yielded a variety of results, sometimes conflicting ones. Last month, for example, a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry by Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, a leading expert in the field of social neuroscience, found that incarcerated men with psychopathic traits had greater activation of the insula region in response to images of pain – the opposite of what Viding’s group found.

There could be a number of reasons for conflicting results, suggested Abigail Marsh, a Georgetown University professor of psychology. A recent Marsh study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry tracked with the Viding team’s results – reduced response from brain regions key to empathy. But, she said, “we found a very small change in instructions” – to imagine the person in a picture is one’s self versus another person – “made a very big difference in the patterns of brain activity we observed.”

Plus there are obvious age, developmental and life experience differences between an adult incarcerated population and children.

In order to clear the fog, Decey said, “we really need many more studies of this kind.”   

Meanwhile, whatever the fine details, it is clear that the brains of psychopaths work differently than those of non-psychopaths. Psychopaths, for example, often show dysfunction in the amygdala, where fear is processed. As a result, psychopaths are bad at recognizing fear in others.

Viding agreed that “we are a very long way from reliably predicting future psychopathy by testing children. In fact, I am very skeptical about us ever being able to do so.”

But that’s not necessary to help children because the real goal is treatment, not pinpointing a future serial killer. “We are hoping that, as has been the case for autism, we are able to develop earlier identifiers that will allow us to begin treatment when children are young,” Marsh said.

Research shows that if such children can be identified, behavioral therapy, such as rewarding empathetic behavior toward others, and training parents in adopting a warmer parenting style, can work, though it’s still early and, Viding said, it may always be difficult to parent such children.

No child should ever be labeled a psychopath, Viding said, because their brains and life experiences are still  developing and, especially if given intervention, they may never wind up psychopathic, but callous traits are a real problem.

“Research clearly shows that not all children with conduct problems are alike. It may sound more politically correct not to acknowledge that, but ultimately that stance is not going to be helpful for the children and their families. In my own experience, parents of children with conduct problems and callous traits are often desperate for help.” 

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