Last updated May 1, 2018 at 3:56 pm
The brains of young people with severe behavioural problems have abnormal connectivity, which may make them more susceptible to developing anxiety or depression.
There appear to be clear and important differences between adolescents just suffering from what is known as Conduct Disorder and those who also have psychopathic traits, according to new research.
Conduct Disorder is typified by symptoms ranging from lying and truancy through to physical violence and weapon use. Those with psychopathic traits also have deficits in guilt, remorse and empathy.
Researchers from the universities of Bath and Cambridge in England and the California Institute of Technology used functional MRI scans to analyse the amygdala, a key part of the brain involved in understanding the emotions of others, and how it communicates with other parts of the brain.
Their previous work had suggested that adolescents with Conduct Disorder find it difficult to recognise angry and sad facial expressions, and they wanted to establish what goes wrong at a brain level that could explain this.
Patients with amygdala damage show a range of problems, such as reading others’ emotions, and given the similarities in behaviour between these patients and youths with Conduct Disorder, scientists had previously hypothesised that the amygdala might be damaged or dysfunctional in some way.
However, when the researchers analysed connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for decision making and behavioural inhibition – they found that while youths with Conduct Disorder and high levels of psychopathic traits showed normal connectivity, those with Conduct Disorder alone showed abnormal connectivity.
“These results may explain why young people with Conduct Disorder, but without psychopathic traits, find it difficult to control their emotions – especially strong negative emotions like anger,” said Dr Graeme Fairchild, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.
The parts of the brain that are normally involved in regulating the emotional parts of the brain appear less able to do so in the youths with Conduct Disorder alone.
Over time, this could lead to them developing co-morbid mental health problems like depression or anxiety, whereas youths with psychopathic traits might be protected from developing such problems.
“This study shows that there may be important differences between youths with high and low levels of psychopathic traits in the way the brain is wired,” Fairchild said.
“The findings could have clinical implications, because they suggest that psychological treatments that enhance emotion regulation abilities are likely to be more effective in the youths with Conduct Disorder alone, than in the psychopathic subgroup.”
The paper is published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.