A review of 23 neuroimaging studies of adolescents and young people with conduct problems found that these individuals generally exhibit decreased activity in brain areas related to empathy and social learning. This includes the amygdala and temporal cortex regions, especially when viewing images designed to elicit negative emotions. Notably, young individuals with callous traits showed diminished activity in the fusiform gyrus, suggesting decreased attention or a less active processing of facial cues. The study was published in Translational Psychiatry.
Conduct problems refer to a persistent pattern of disruptive and antisocial behaviors, which may include aggression, lying, stealing, truancy, and violation of rules and norms. They are typically diagnosed in children and adolescents. Conduct problems often result in conflicts with authority figures, family members, and peers. They can lead to serious adverse social, academic, and legal consequences if left unaddressed.
Many young people with conduct problems receive diagnoses of conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder. Studies have indicated that individuals receiving these diagnoses before the age of 15 have an increased likelihood of substance use disorders or antisocial personality disorder in adulthood. Young people with conduct problems who also have callous-unemotional traits or limited prosocial emotions are more likely to show aggression, engage in bullying, and delinquency.
Numerous neuroimaging studies reported aberrant neural activity in various brain regions of young people with conduct problems, but various ambiguities remained. Study author Kathryn Berluti and her colleagues wanted to systematize the existing scientific findings on the specificities of neural responses of young people with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits to images showing emotions. They wanted to study neural responses to images showing negative feelings, fearful expressions, angry expressions, and empathic pain.
The researchers scoured existing scientific literature, pinpointing 21 studies that utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural reactions of youths with conduct problems to emotionally charged images. These studies involved participants aged 10 to 21 and incorporated comprehensive fMRI scans.
Collectively, the chosen studies encompassed 606 participants diagnosed with either conduct problems or disruptive behavior disorder. For comparison, 459 young individuals without these conditions were also included. The average age of participants ranged from 11 to 18 years, based on the individual studies. Statistically, 73% of participants with disruptive behavior disorder or conduct problems were male, while 69% of the control group were also male.
Analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data showed that young people with conduct problems had reduced activity in the left supplementary motor area and superior frontal gyrus when viewing angry facial expressions compared to individuals without these problems. They also showed reduced activation in right amygdala when viewing negative images (images that evoke negative emotions) and fearful facial expressions. Young people with callous-unemotional traits exhibited reduced activation in left fusiform gyrus, superior parietal gyrus, and middle temporal gyrus regions of the brain when viewing fearful facial expressions.
The study’s authors emphasized that these brain regions are intricately linked to empathetic responses and social learning. The observed reduction in activity among individuals with callous-unemotional traits suggests a decreased attention span or a less active processing of facial cues.
“Our findings highlight differences in processing socio-affective cues including fearful and angry expressions and empathic pain that may underpin a lack of empathic responding, poor regulation of approach and avoidance, and heightened risk for aggression,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on the neural specificity of young people with conduct problems. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the observed differences in brain activities were very small. Additionally, the participants of the examined studies were very heterogenous and researchers did not take into account possible other disorders that study participants suffered from.
The study, “Emotion processing in youths with conduct problems: an fMRI meta-analysis”, was authored by Kathryn Berluti, Montana L. Ploe, and Abigail A. Marsh.