The Psychopathic Brain Responds Differently to Distress in Others

Jean Decety, PhD

The term “psychopath” isn’t just an epithet, it’s an actual medical condition describing someone with a personality disorder causing social deviance, poor behavioral control and deficits in interpersonal skills. Jean Decety, Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, recently conducted an imaging study showing that people with psychopathy demonstrated a decreased neural response to other in pain or distress. Using functional MRI scans to record brain activity, they saw that subjects classified with high levels of psychopathy showed significantly less activation in the parts of the brain region that process risk, fear, and decision making. More on the study from Medscape:

A case-control study of 80 incarcerated men showed that those with psychopathy displayed significantly more impairment in processing facial cues of distress during empathy-eliciting scenarios in brain regions associated with cognitive mentalizing than those without psychopathy.

In response to pain and distress cues in others, those with psychopathy also showed significantly less activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) — parts of the brain region that process risk, fear, and decision making.

“The OFC and vmPFC are essential to being able to represent a particular reward or punishment level with an object and to integrating mental representations with affective value,” write Jean Decety, PhD, from the Departments of Psychology and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and colleagues.

The study received additional coverage at the Huffington Post and NBC News, among others. Science Life covered Decety’s work previously in 2011 when he, graduate student Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, and neurobiology professor Peggy Mason studied how rats show empathy by freeing cage mates who are trapped inside a container.

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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