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PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

Psychopathy and Crime: An FMRI study into Psychopathic Brain Activity


Emmanuella Mascolo
11415050
PY 491

PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

Psychopathy and Criminality


Background Information
Psychopathy has always been part of our society. From the Biblical times to the medieval
Greek and Roman empires, individuals that psychiatrists, such as Adolf Guggenbhl-Craig and
Theophrastus, have labeled as an unscrupulous and emptied souls, have roamed the earth
(Seara-Cardoso & Viding, 2014). These individuals are said to lack the natural connections that
bind us all and the caution or inhibitions that such relationships impose. In history, this is one
human defect that most scientists believe have escaped psychiatry. Ancient medicine mostly
recognized depression, delusion and psychosis as the broader categories mental illnesses, but
psychopathy did not just fit in any of these (Seara-Cardoso & Viding, 2014).
The law has often treated psychopathy with the same benign neglect like medicine has.
An argument can be passed that the laws blind eye is justified, especially in considering
psychopathy as a potential excusing mental defect (Seara-Cardoso & Viding, 2014). This notion
is in line with psychiatrists belief that insanity and other potentially excusing disorders may
create a general inability in these individuals to perceive accurately the world around them and
make a correct judgment of their immediate circumstances. Criminal justice therefore widely
groups these groups of personalities as legally incompetent and blameless (Seara-Cardoso &
Viding, 2014). Nonetheless, a question on which group of individual fits into this category is
always a subject of major contention.
According to Kiehl et al. (2010), psychopathy is one of the most difficult mental
disorders to identify. This challenge is often caused by the fact that this defect is typically
mistaken for an almost similar but distinct illness, sociopathy. While psychopathy is a spectrum
disorder, a sociopath is usually distinguished for their tendencies to exhibit extreme antisocial

PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

behaviors ascribed to environmental or social factors (Seara-Cardoso & Viding, 2014). This
distinction implies that a psychopath can naturally appear as normal or even charming, but can
be potentially manipulative, violent, and lacking in conscience and empathy underneath while a
sociopath can be identified from a mile away (Seara-Cardoso & Viding, 2014). Further, it should
be noted that contrary to popular beliefs; not all psychopaths are violent criminals. Most of them
live among us inconspicuously and unattended. A fact that may inhibit early detection and
treatment administered.
Problem Statement
Dr. Robert Hare talks about a particularly disturbing conversation he had with one Secret
Service agent concerning an FBI report which suggested that approximately half of the killers of
law enforcement officers in the United States met the criteria of psychopaths (Seara-Cardoso &
Viding, 2014). This statistics only reveals how dangerous this group can be if not identified and
instituted into therapeutic programs. For years now, the medical field has attempted to classify
and study personality traits of individuals that are likely to engage in crimes, and especially
psychopaths because of their innate inclination to unethical behaviors. As a result, the American
Mental Health field has made good diagnostics of antisocial diagnostic personalities for people
who consistently violates social norms and moral codes that may assist with strategic early
identification and prevention of related crimes (Seara-Cardoso & Viding, 2014). Unfortunately,
the DSM-IV and DSM-IV-TR, the official diagnostic tools have failed to discern the
physiological wiring of these individuals that predisposes them to distasteful conducts (Kiehl et
al. (2010).
Objective of the Study

PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

This study is designed to examine the neuroscience of potentially deranged individuals


with an intention of understanding their neurological defects that make them qualify for this
status of social misfits and reckless offenders. To help us through this study, the researcher has
identified various evidence-based studies examining the brain activity of medically psychopathic
individuals with an aim of identifying potential solutions to such personality disorders.
Literature Review
Extensive data, existing in the vast literature, indicates that people who exhibit
psychopathic traits tend to demonstrate lower brain activity than healthy persons, especially in
areas that are usually associated with rational thinking and objectivity. These studies regard this
defect as a multi-dimensional disorder with confounded physiological anatomy. Computer-based
fMRI studies and neuroimaging findings have always been used to substantiate these claims.
Scholars and multi-disciplinary professionals from diverse background have conducted both
investigative and explorative studies in regards to psychopathic traits that may interest influence
the direction taken by this research. These studies illustrate distinct differences in the
neurological structures and functioning between psychopathic and normal subjects.
Differences in Brain Responses
Responsiveness to Emotional stimuli
In a pilot study by Sitaram et al. (2014), the authors, who determined that abnormal brain
responses are the primary reason for psychopathic tendencies, tries to demonstrate a modest
potential for training individuals with such defaults, to learn how to control their brain activity in
the anterior insular. According to this investigation, previous studies with healthy volunteers
indicated that learned control of blood oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD) signals, was
specific to certain regions of the brain. Successful regulation of BOLD signals was established to

PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

modulate emotional responses, especially concerning aversive picture stimuli, but not neutral
stimuli (Sitaram et al., 2014). The study that involved four criminals revealed that the use of
negative, positive imageries together with contingent deterrent feedback could significantly
assist in regulating anterior insular that is usually responsible for impulsive behaviors.
It should, however, be noted that only one out of the four criminal psychopaths used in
this investigation was successful in learning to control his brain activity. Other subjects who
exhibited higher Psychopathic Checklist-Revised (PCL: SV) scores were incapable of increasing
their BOLD signals in their anterior insula than their counterparts who recorded lower score.
This study also employed multivariate Granger Casualty Modelling (GCM) technique to
examine functional connectivity changes in emotional changes that were linked to successful
learning of volitional regulation. In which case, it reveals a high correlation between learning to
control brain activity and emotional volatility in psychopathic individuals (Sitaram et al., 2014).
Responsiveness to Rewards and Punishments
It has always been assumed that psychopaths often have a problem in processing reward
and punishments. Punjara et al. (2014) describe psychopathy as a personality disorder associated
with impulsive behavior, callousness, and criminal recidivism. Structural and magnetic
resonance imaging were used in this study to evaluate the neural correlates of loss and reward
sensitivities of criminal psychopaths. For investigation forty-one male prison inmates underwent
and functional magnetic imaging of task involving loss or gain of money. Across the entire
population of psychopaths and non-psychopaths, earning money elicited substantial activation in
the ventral striatum (VS), though not in equal quantities, a region of the brain that is usually
associated with processing such information. Similar results were also recorded regarding
response to losses, in which case, this category of individual recorded lower hormonal activation.

PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

This study invalidates the popular fallacy about psychopaths inability to process loss or gain,
offering insight to their neutral substrate to loss or gain.
Responsiveness to other Peoples Pain
When Marsh et al. (2013) conducted an investigation into the popular notion that
psychopathic traits are usually linked to a reduction of empathy for other distress, the researchers
discovered a diminished responsiveness within the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and
amygdala, which are ordinarily associated with pain reception. The study that employed a full
brain magnetic resonance imaging to measure hormonal activation in fourteen teenagers with
oppositional defiant disorder, a condition usually linked to psychopathy, proved that these
individuals were immune to the effects of pain-inducing photographic images.
Responsiveness to Moral Stimuli
The final study under this section is a study conducted by Kiehl et al. (2010). This study
uses the neural systems as the determiner of whether psychopaths and non-psychopaths have
anything in common or whether they are entirely different (Kiehl et al., 2010). The study
involved both groups being put under the test of viewing pictures. When viewing the photos,
non-psychopaths tended to have more activity in their temporal cortex, an observation that was
absolutely missing when it came to psychopaths. The results revealed that neural abnormalities
existed every time the decent pictures were being processed in psychopaths. Concisely, the study
sheds more light on how non-moral images and good images are viewed by psychopaths. The
results revealed that when it came to moral stimuli, there existed a functional abnormality.
Structural Difference in Neurology
Grey Matter Volume

PSYCHOPATHY AND CRIME

In an almost similar study by Gregory et al. (2012), the researchers explore the structural
differences in the grey matter of violent offender who meets the criteria of sociopaths,
psychopaths, and healthy non-offender. This study employed a cross-sectional case-control
structural magnetic resonance imaging to examine grey matter volume, measured by MRI.
Participants were sixty-six men, seventeen who were typical sociopaths, twenty-seven were
qualified psychopaths while the remaining twenty-two were non-offenders. The result of this
investigation revealed a significantly reduced GM in volumes in Brodmann area and temporal
poles in psychopaths compared to sociopaths and healthy non-offenders. In medical science such
a reduction in GM is frequently associated with abnormal empathic reasoning, flawed processing
of pro-social emotions and constricted moral reasoning that constitutes profound abnormalities
associated with psychopathy.
White Matter and Amygdala
Motzkin et al. (2011) conducted an investigation linking psychopathy to particular brain
abnormalities that they believed could have significant legal, clinical and scientific implications.
Until the time of this research, theories existed that sort to link a dysfunction of ventromedial
prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), to this disorder. In this study, Motzkin et al. used both diffusion
tensor imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that psychopathy is
associated with reduced uncinate fasciculus, the white matter connection between anterior
temporal lobe and vmPFC. Further, this study revealed a reduced functional connectivity
between amygdala and vmPFC, and a similar connection between medial parietal cortex and
vmPFC.

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Discussion

The studies above clearly shows a distinct structural and functional differences in
neurobiological makeup between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. It is, therefore, scientifically
plausible to say that these group of individuals possesses certain congenital personality disorders
that make them prone to criminal behaviors beyond their natural ability to control. The various
studies suggest discussed above shows a remarkable reduction in both the sizes of grey and white
matters of nerve cells in psychopaths. Moreover, their neural responses to emotional, moral and
other peoples pain have also been proven to be significantly compromised. The great news,
though, is that, with early detection, these individuals can be trained to control their emotional
tantrums and adopt an almost normal lives (Sitaram et al. 2014). Psychopathy is a growing
disorder, to mean that it worsens with time if not detected early and treated. Punishing or sending
criminal psychopaths to ordinary jails with no medical attention may only serve to worsen their
situation, as they lack the discernment to both reward and punishment (Marsh et al. 2013).
Conclusion and Recommendation
Psychopathy is a universal and common problem that continues to plague humanity. It
has been estimated that about 50-70% of prison inmates meet the criteria for Antisocial
Personality Disorder, while 15-25% qualifies for the status of psychopathy (Hoff, 2009). This
statistics still make up for a vast proportion of individual who have found themselves in the
wrong corrective program. Personality disorder requires medical attention, and not brutal
corporal punishments. However, a gap still exists in this study calling for future research. A study
needs to be conducted with regards to fMRI use in the court system to distinguish between
potentially deranged individuals and normal offenders to ensure that the correct solution is met.

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References

Gregory, S. (2012). The Antisocial Brain: Psychopathy Matters. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 69(9), 962.
Kiehl, K., Harenski, K., Shane, M., & Harenski, C. (2010). Aberrant Neural Processing of
Moral Violations in Criminal Psychopaths.
Marsh, A., Finger, E. C., Fowler, K. A, Adalio, C. J., Jurkowitz, I. N., Schechter, J. C., & Blair,
R. R. (2013). Empathic responsiveness in the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex in
youths with psychopathic traits. Journal Of Child Psychology & Psychiatry,54(8), 900910.
Motzkin, J., Newman, W., Kiehl, K., & Koenigs, M. (2011). Reduced Prefrontal Connectivity in
Psychopathy. JoN, 17348-17357.
Pujara, M., Motzkin, J., Newman, J. P., Kiehl, K. A., Koenigs, M., 4, K. K. A., 3, J. N. P.
(2013). Neural correlates of gain and loss sensitivity in psychopathy. SCAN, 54.
Seara-Cardoso, A., & Viding, E. (2014). Functional Neuroscience of Psychopathic Personality in
Adults. J Pers, n/an/a.
Sitaram, P., Caria, A., Veit, R., Gaber, T., Ruiz, S., & Birbaumer, N. (2014). Volitional control of
the anterior insula in criminal psychopaths using real-time fMRI neurofeedback: a pilot
study. FBN, 8, 344.
Hoff, H. (2009). Evidence of deviant emotional processing in psychopathy: An fMRI case study.