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Recently, a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study conducted by neuroscientist Jean Decety and colleagues at the University of Chicago reported that youth with aggressive conduct disorder (who have psychopathic tendencies) have a different hemodynamic brain response when confronted with empathy-eliciting stimuli. In the study, researchers compared 16- to 18-year-old boys with aggressive conduct disorder to a control group of adolescent boys with no unusual signs of aggression.
The youth with the conduct disorder had exhibited disruptive behavior such as starting a fight, using a weapon and stealing after confronting a victim. The youth were tested with fMRI while looking at video clips in which people endured pain accidentally, such as when a heavy bowl was dropped on their hands, and intentionally, such as when a person stepped on another's foot. Results show that the aggressive youth activated the neural circuits underpinning pain processing to the same extent, and in some cases, even more so than the control participants without conduct disorder.
However, aggressive adolescents showed a specific and very strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum (an area that responds to feeling rewarded) when watching pain inflicted on others, which suggested that they enjoyed watching pain. Unlike the control group, the youth with conduct disorder did not activate the areas of the brain involved in understanding social interaction and moral reasoning (i.e., the paracingulate cortex and temporoparietal junction).
- ↑ Decety, J., Michalska, K.J., Akitsuki, Y., & Lahey, B. (2009). Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: a functional MRI investigation. Biological Psychology, 80, 203-211.
- ↑ Decety, J., Michalska, K.J., & Akitsuki, Y. (2008). Who caused the pain? A functional MRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2607-2614.