Pathological narcissism is associated with reduced cortical thickness and cortical volume in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, according to a study published online this July in Neuroscience, which may explain impairments in the regulation of emotion.

Pathological narcissism, which differs from the normal form of narcissism (a normally distributed personality feature), can be defined as a personality characteristic involving arrogant behavior, feelings of entitlement, lack of empathy, and willingness to exploit other individuals. It is also often associated with aggression and dominance.

Pathological narcissism has been shown to predict psychological health, with individuals high in narcissism more likely to suffer mental disorders. For example, researchers have found that pathological narcissism is correlated with: anxiety, depression, loneliness, empathy, and neuroticism. Furthermore, individuals with a narcissistic personality exhibit avoidant attachment styles, maintain distance in relationships, claim not to need others, and are more sensitive to social rejection.

One striking finding is that the current young generation has become more narcissistic than previous generations, with predictions suggesting that this trend will continue.

Most brain imaging research has revealed that narcissism is related to empathy and emotion regulation, and the specific brain regions involved in empathy and emotion regulation. However, there has been little research on the brain structural basis of pathological narcissism.

The study, led by Yu Mao of Southwest University in China, investigated the relationship between cortical thickness, cortical volume, and pathological narcissism in a large healthy sample of 176 college students. All students were scanned using structural magnetic resonance imaging and the data was analyzed to compare the association between brain structure and pathological narcissism scores (measured by the Pathological Narcissism Inventory), adjusting for age, sex, and total brain volume.

The results showed that pathological narcissism was associated with reduced cortical thickness and cortical volume in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a key region of the central executive network), which has been associated with impaired emotion regulation. Furthermore, pathological narcissism was associated with reduced cortical volume in the right postcentral gyrus, left medial prefrontal cortex, and the cortical thickness in the right inferior frontal cortex, which has been associated with impairments in social cognition.

The authors concluded, “Together, these findings suggest a unique structural basis for individual differences in pathological narcissism, distributed across different gray matter regions of the social brain network and central executive network.”