Antisocial behavior associated with abnormal white matter brain structure in men with callous-unemotional traits

A study published in NeuroImage: Clinical provides new insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of antisocial behaviors. The research indicates that the combination of antisocial behavior and callous-unemotional traits is associated with alterations in neural networks involved in fear conditioning, reward processing, and inhibitory control.

“In my research broadly I’m interested in understanding the development of antisocial behavior, including criminality and aggression, in the hopes of informing more effective preventative strategies and interventions,” explained Hailey Dotterer, the corresponding author of the study and doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

“Previous work has identified neurobiological processes that appear to contribute to impulse control and emotional regulation, which are both impaired in antisocial behavior. Understanding brain-behavior associations therefore could give researchers a better idea of how antisocial behavior emerges, and, in the long term, a better idea of how to treat it.”

The researchers examined data from 178 participants who were part of The Pitt Mother & Child Project, a long-running longitudinal study of 310 low-income, ethnically diverse boys and their families.

As part of that study, participants underwent a magnetic resonance imaging scanning session at age 20 to assess functional connectivity in the brain. The participants also completed questionnaires that assessed antisocial behavior (such as vandalism, stealing, and physical aggression) and callous-unemotional traits (such as lack of empathy).

“In the current study, there were no associations between white matter microstructure and antisocial behavior or callous-unemotional traits on their own. Instead, we found that specifically the combination of high levels of antisocial behavior and high levels of callous-unemotional traits were associated with widespread differences in white matter within the brain,” Dotterer told PsyPost.

“White matter fibers represent the physical connections between different areas in the brain. Changes or disruptions in these connections may impact brain functioning and partially contribute to impulse control and emotion regulation deficits within severe manifestations of antisocial behavior and callous-unemotional traits.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Future research will be needed to determine whether our findings replicate in different populations, including clinical populations that have higher prevalence for antisocial behavior and callous-unemotional traits,” Dotterer explained.

“Additionally, these analyses cannot determine causality. That is, it is unclear whether antisocial behavior leads to changes in white matter, or vice versa, or whether an additional, unmeasured factor (e.g., substance use, chronic stress) explains these associations. Longitudinal work that measures both behavior and white matter over the course of development could provide a better idea of why and how these associations emerge in young adulthood.”

The study, “Antisocial behavior with callous-unemotional traits is associated with widespread disruptions to white matter structural connectivity among low-income, urban males“, was authored by Hailey L. Dotterer, Rebecca Waller, Daniel S. Shaw, John Plass, David Brang, Erika E. Forbes, and Luke W. Hyde.