Brain scans show healthy individuals on the psychopathy spectrum have reduced empathy

Psychopathy exists on a continuum and new research shows that even healthy individuals with some psychopathic traits have reduced empathy.

A research team led by Ana Seara-Cardoso of University College London published a study in March in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience showing that healthy men with more psychopathic tendencies also have altered activity in the brain regions typically required for empathy.

Previous research has shown that observing others in distress evokes empathy and activation in associated brain regions (the anterior insula, inferior frontal gyrus, and the border between the mid- and anterior cingulate cortex). Individuals with clinical levels of psychopathy do not experience such empathy and have reduced or blunted activation in these brain regions.

It is thought that this lack of empathic response may contribute to psychopaths’ inappropriate or immoral behavior. Interestingly, recent work has suggested that psychopathic traits may exist on a continuum throughout the general population, with only extreme psychopaths receiving a clinical diagnosis. It has even been proposed that such subclinical psychopaths may be more likely to rise to positions of power in corporate or political hierarchies.

This new study directly tested the notion that the patterns of brain region activity in response to others’ pain exist on the continuum of psychopathic traits in the general population.

Researchers showed images of hands and feet in painful or non-painful situations to 46 healthy adult men and assessed brain activation in the regions known to underlie empathy. Although subclinical, individuals that scored higher on a standardized test of psychopathy showed altered empathic activation.

Interestingly, just as in clinical psychopaths, two different dimensions of psychopathy interacted in opposing directions. Although the two dimensions of psychopathy correlate strongly, individuals with higher levels of affective-interpersonal traits (i.e., “manipulative” psychopathy) exhibited a reduced empathic response whereas individuals with more lifestyle-antisocial traits (i.e., “aggressive” psychopathy) had a stronger empathic response.

These two subgroups of psychopathy have yet to be fully explored, but this study at least supports that the same pattern of psychopathic traits and empathic responses exists for both extreme, clinical psychopaths and nonclinical psychopaths in the general population.

This research suggests that the neural relationships and brain activity underlying more extreme clinical levels of psychopathy may apply to nonclinical psychopathy in the general population.