Psychopathic traits linked to altered brain activity when judging oneself

New research provides evidence that a specific cluster of psychopathic traits is linked to reduced activity in the brain when judging oneself.

The findings, published in NeuroImage: Clinical, suggest that those high in psychopathic traits have impairments in self-reflective judgment.

“Psychopathy is a devastating psychological disorder, both in terms of human suffering and the economic costs to society,” remarked study author Michael Koenigs, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Given that psychopathic offenders constitute roughly 20% of the U.S. jail and prison population, coupled with the fact that psychopathic offenders are substantially more likely to re-offend (especially violently) than non-psychopathic offenders, it is reasonable to conclude that psychopathic offenders cost the U.S. several hundred billion dollars per year in criminal activity alone.”

“However, we currently have very limited methods for preventing or treating psychopathic traits,” Koenigs said. “We believe that a deeper understanding of the psychological and biological mechanisms underlying the disorder will lead to more effective strategies for treating and preventing psychopathic behavior.”

The researchers used fMRI to examine the brain activity of 57 adult male incarcerated offenders while they completed a trait judgment task. In the task, the participants responded to yes/no questions about themselves and their mother (or another significant caregiver.)

Koenigs and his colleagues looked at two clusters of psychopathic traits, which are known as Factor 1 and Factor 2. The former consists of egocentricity, deceitfulness, and lack of empathy while the latter consists of impulsivity, irresponsibility, and poor behavioral controls.

“Psychopathy is not a unitary, monolithic disorder. There are distinct clusters of psychopathic traits that may be underpinned by distinct circuits in the brain,” Koenigs explained.

The researchers found that Factor 2 traits were associated with reduced neural activity during self-judgments compared to other-judgments. The reduced activity was observed in the posterior cingulate cortex and the right temporoparietal junction.

“This study shows that the reckless, impulsive, and criminal/antisocial traits of psychopathy may be related to a brain circuit that processes information about oneself relative to other people,” Koenigs told PsyPost.

“It is still not clear how we can apply this sort of brain-behavior relationship to improve diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of the disorder. Translational research efforts are needed in this area,” he added.

The study, “Psychopathic traits linked to alterations in neural activity during personality judgments of self and others“, was authored by Philip Deming, Carissa L. Philippi, Richard C. Wolf, Monika Dargis, Kent A. Kiehl, and Michael Koenigs.