- Researchers at University College London found that children diagnosed with ‘conduct problems’ react abnormally to seeing people in pain
- Regions of the brain affected are those known to play a role in empathy
- But expert says it is important to ‘view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny’
Brain scans can be used to identify children who may be potential psychopaths, new research has shown.
Scientists have found that certain areas of a psychopath’s brain showed a reduced activity in response to images of others in pain.
The regions affected are those known to play a role in empathy, the ability to relate to other people’s feelings.
Scientists say the patterns could act as a marker to single out children at a risk of becoming adult psychopaths.
A total of 55 boys aged 10 to 16 were assessed in the study.
Of these, 37 met the criteria for children with ‘conduct problems’ (CP) according to questionnaire answers provided by parents and teachers.
CP children display a plethora of antisocial traits including aggression and dishonesty.
Like the central character in Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, they can be callous and cruel.
Youngsters with conduct problems are not likely to follow in Kevin’s footsteps and commit a school massacre, but the research findings suggest at least some could grow up to be psychopaths.
‘Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain,’ psychologist Professor Essi Viding from University College London said.
‘It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny.
- Children who were aggressive or cruel had reduced brain activity in response to images of others in pain
‘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.’
About five per cent of children qualify for a diagnosis of CP, but little is known about the condition’s underlying cause.
Participants in the study underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while being shown images of other people’s hands and feet in painful and non-painful situations.
Some psychopaths display disturbing symptoms from a young age, such the main protagonist in Lionel Shriver’s book We Need to Talk about Kevin.
A distinct difference was seen in the brain responses of children with and without CP.
In children with conduct problems, brain activity in three key regions was reduced when looking at the pictures. They were the bilateral anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior frontal gyrus.
All are regions associated in previous studies with feelings of empathy for others in pain.
The scientists wrote in the journal Current Biology: ‘We show that callous traits in particular may underlie atypical neural responses to others’ pain in CP, which may represent an early neurobiological marker for later psychopathy.
‘It remains an empirical question whether empathic responding can be normalised in children with CP.’
Not all children with conduct problems displayed a vulnerability to psychopathy, the researchers stressed.
‘This raises the possibility of tailoring existing interventions to suit the specific profile of atypical processing that characterises a child with conduct problems,’ Prof Viding said.