Neuroimaging study suggests psychopathy is linked to fundamentally impaired mechanisms of attention

New brain imaging research provides evidence that psychopathy is associated with “fundamentally impaired mechanisms of attention.”

The study, published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, hints that the emotional deficits in psychopathy may be rooted in abnormalities in attentional processing.

“As a cognitive neuroscientist, I’m deeply interested in the way individual differences in the brain translate to the wide variation in human behavior that we see all around us,” said study author Nathaniel E. Anderson of The Nonprofit Mind Research Network and Lovelace Biomedical and Environmental Research Institute.

“Psychopathic individuals represent an extreme example of this, since they show impairments in very basic aspects of cognition that scale up to profound deficits in things like moral decision-making and socially acceptable behavior.

“Also, partly due to portrayals in popular media, I see psychopathy as a wildly misunderstood corner of mental health research,” Anderson told PsyPost. “The public tends to view psychopaths as monsters and lost causes. I want to encourage the recognition that this is a serious mental health condition that can be addressed with the same tools we use to study things like schizophrenia, autism, and depression.”

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of 168 incarcerated adult males during an auditory oddball task.

During the task, participants listened to a series of noises that occurred one after the other. They were asked to click a button whenever they heard a particular high-pitched tone.

The researchers found that psychopathy was associated with abnormal activity in several brain regions involved in attention, including anterior temporal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal anterior cingulate, temporoparietal junction, and posterior cingulate cortex.

These regions are part of the default mode network, which is involved in the functions of a resting brain state.

“The basic message is pretty simple. Psychopathic traits are commonly attributed to deficits in emotional processes that lead to the severe consequences in judgement and behavior,” Anderson explained.

“What this study shows is that there may be even more fundamental processes that are impaired – specifically, the way the brain encodes differences between what is important and what is not, even without emotional content involved – and this has more to do with attention.”

“The reason emotional processing might be impaired in psychopaths to begin with, is because a psychopathic brain doesn’t attend to emotional information in the same way a healthy brain does, so it’s not integrated strongly into more complex processes like decision-making.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Every research project like this is designed, by nature, to address a very limited question,” Anderson told PsyPost. “For instance, this study looks at only one relatively simple attention task (a target detection task), using one method of brain measurement (functional MRI), among a limited population (adult male inmates).”

“Replication requires extending this to other related attention tasks, other imaging techniques, and other populations. It would be interesting, for instance, to see if these findings are also apparent in younger kids with psychopathic traits, which would suggest it’s an early developmental feature of psychopathy – and thus amenable to early intervention.”

“I’m grateful when research like this gets attention from a public audience,” Anderson added. “I think we’re turning a corner in society, and we’re more able to recognize how the brain is an essential element of our best and worst behaviors.”

“We have a history of attributing supernatural labels to things we don’t understand. Thinking of psychopaths as ‘evil’ is an example of this, promoting a misconception that their attributes are impenetrable for science.”

“As a consequence, the behaviors and traits that we would most benefit from preventing and treating go unattended,” Anderson said.” People with psychopathic traits are unfortunately among the most neglected by one of society’s best tools: scientific research.”

The study, “Psychopathic traits associated with abnormal hemodynamic activity in salience and default mode networks during auditory oddball task“, was authored by Nathaniel E. Anderson, J. Michael Maurer, Vaughn R. Steele, and Kent A. Kiehl.