Brain deformity leads to psychopathy, says study

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psychopath brain difference
Scientists have found differences in the brain which may provide a biological explanation for psychopathy. Photo- Hayden Bird/iStockphoto

Psychopaths have baffled and amazed scientists for centuries. According to Dr. Sabrina Weber, professor of Psychiatry and Physiotherapy, Aachen University, Germany, “Psychopathy” can be seen as special subtype of personality disorder. The concept was discussed in 19th century by French psychiatrist Phillipe Pinel. Since then, many scientists have been trying to understand how the brain of a psychopath works.

Researchers based at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry claim that structural abnormalities in the brain point toward the emergence of psychopaths. This discovery was made after scanning the brains of men convicted of murder, rape and violent assaults. The researchers said these abnormalities single out offenders from those with anti-social personality disorders (ASPD), and from healthy non-offenders.

Grey cells

Hercule Poirot, a detective character created by bestselling mystery author Agatha Christie, was right about the importance of  the “little grey cells.”

According to Nigel Blackwood, who the led the study at the King’s College, findings showed that psychopaths who are characterised by a lack of empathy, had less grey matter in the areas of brain important for understanding other peoples’ emotions.

The results showed that the psychopaths’ brains have significantly less grey matter in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles than the brains of the non-psychopathic offenders and non-offenders.

These areas of the brain are important in understanding other people’s emotions and intentions, and are activated when people think about moral behaviour, the researchers said. Damage to these areas is linked with a lack of empathy, a poor response to fear and distress and a lack of self-conscious emotions such as guilt or embarrassment.

Blackwood’s team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 44 violent adult male offenders in Britain who had already been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorders.

The crimes they had committed included murder, rape, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm. Of the 44 men scanned, 17 met the diagnosis for ASPD plus psychopathy and 27 did not. The researchers also scanned the brains of 22 healthy non-offenders.


“This research changes the way people, especially criminals would be treated,” said Dr. Jamal Ahmed, a clinical psychiatrist based in Toronto, Canada. “Now people will understand that psychopaths are also victims. The damage to their brains could have occurred due to an accident or even due to abuse,” he added.

Nigel Blackwood, who led the study, said the ability to use brain scans to identify and diagnose this sub-group of violent criminals has important implications for treatment.

While cognitive and behavioural treatments may benefit people with anti-social personality disorders, the same approach may not work for psychopaths with brain damage, Blackwood said.

“To get a clear idea of which treatments are working, you’ve got to clearly define what people are like going into the treatment programmes,” he said in a telephone interview.

Essi Viding, a professor in the psychology and language sciences department of University College London, who was not involved in Blackwood’s study, said it provided “weighty new evidence” about the importance of distinguishing psychopathic from non-psychopathic people rather than grouping them together.

Lindsay Thomson, a professor of forensic psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh, also not involved in this study, said Blackwood’s findings add to evidence that psychopathy is a distinct neurodevelopmental brain disorder.

Other implications

This research would be able to ease the strain on the world’s legal system. Linking psychopathy to brain function raises the prospect of arguing defence of insanity.

“This makes the life of a judge, jury and those involved less strained,” Sarah Joe Allen, a law student from Boston, Massachusetts, told Arabian Gazette. “Imagine the amount of time and tax payers’ money that can be saved, with one brain scan. This truly is breakthrough science.”

Interest in what goes on inside the heads of violent criminals has skyrocketed amid the ongoing trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people last July. Two court-appointed psychiatric teams who examined Breivik came to opposite conclusions about his mental health. The killer himself has railed against being called insane.

However, Dr. Ahmed was concerned about the amount of time and money which would be spent on scanning each individual’s brain to determine their levels of psychopathy. “How many criminals are we going to scan? Further these deformities can be so minor that sometimes it might get overlooked by overworked technicians.”

ASPD Vs. Psychopaths

According to Blackwood, there are clear behaviour differences among people with ASPD depending on whether they also have psychopathy. Their patterns of offending are different, suggesting the need for a separate approach to treatment.

“We describe those without psychopathy as ‘hot-headed’ and those with psychopathy as ‘cold-hearted’,” Blackwood explained.

“The ‘cold-hearted’ psychopathic group begin offending earlier, engage in a broader range and greater density of offending behaviours, and respond less well to treatment programs in adulthood compared to the ‘hot-headed’ group.”

Research shows that most violent crimes are committed by a small group of persistent male offenders with ASPD.

In England and Wales, for example, around half of male prisoners meet diagnostic criteria for ASPD. A major review of studies covering 23,000 prisoners from 62 countries conducted in 2002 found that 47% had anti-social personality disorder.

Such people typically react in an aggressive way to frustration or perceived threats, but most are not psychopaths, the researchers wrote in a summary of their study, which was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry journal.

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