In the first neuroimaging study of incarcerated female psychopaths, researchers have shown that female psychopaths may process moral emotions differently than male psychopaths.
Psychopathy is a psychiatric disorder characterized by impulsive and callous behavior and an inability to experience normal human emotions, especially moral emotions such as empathy and guilt. Most previous studies have focused on psychopathic males, and have shown that this disorder is associated with reduced physiological responses to emotional stimuli, including reduced activation of the brain regions that underlie emotions.
In particular, when viewing immoral behaviors and moral dilemmas male psychopaths show less of a response in their amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, brain regions important for moral judgements. How these regions respond to moral questions and dilemmas in female psychopaths was previously unknown.
In a study headed by Carla Harenski of The MIND Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, researchers used fMRI to compare brain activity between 157 female psychopaths being held in a medium-security correctional facility and 46 healthy controls. This work was published in September of 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Participants were rated for severity of psychopathy and their brain activity was monitored while they viewed emotional, moral, and non-emotional pictures. For example, participants would view a drunk driver (immoral), an angry driver (emotional), or a normal driver (non-emotional).
Just as in male psychopaths, female psychopaths showed reduced emotional processing activity in the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex. Unlike males, however, female psychopaths in this study also showed reduced responses to morally-sensitive images in their right temporoparietal junction, an area of the brain linked to one’s sense of justice and the attribution of intentions.
“These results extend prior findings regarding emotion processing in adult male psychopathy to female psychopathy, and reveal aberrant neural responses to morally-salient stimuli that may be unique to female psychopathy,” the researchers wrote.
This response seems to be unique to female psychopaths. These findings may indicate a previously unidentified area of aberrant brain activity among female psychopaths. Future work will have to replicate these findings and determine whether this difference can be used to better understand the origin of psychopathy or to improve treatments.