The brain of a psychopath shows limited activity in the regions responsible for empathy, reports a recent study by psychiatrists at the University of Chicago. This is one of the first studies to observe the neural responses related to empathy processing in psychopathic prisoners.
Psychopath, the very term makes us imagine a person exhibiting extreme anti-social behavior, violence or a person involved in serial killing. However, there are psychopaths in society who have not committed violent crimes but are capable of inflicting pain emotionally to others and never regret their actions. They are called a subclinical psychopath.
AdvertisementOne of the common traits of psychopaths is that they are very charismatic and assertive with excellent communication skills and are capable of manipulating people and situations. These superficial skills are often mistaken to be leadership qualities. This takes them to top positions in corporate world before their self-centered, dominant and unremorseful character is revealed.
Various researchers trying to understand the brain of psychopaths have reported that a psychopath's brain differs structurally and functionally from normal human brain.
In this recent study, a team of researchers recorded the brain activities of study participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to violent visual stimuli. The stimuli included videos of people being harmed intentionally and photos of people in pain.
The study involved 80 male prisoners aged between 18 and 50 years. Some of the participants were diagnosed as psychopaths, while the others were controls.
Researchers noticed an increased activity of the insula region of the brain, which reveals that the person is aware of the scenario depicted and perceives that the other person is in pain. However, the decreased activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala of their brains hinder their ability to process the emotions and empathize with people in pain. This in turn affects their ability to evaluate the consequences and make decisions.
It is seen that biological explanations are widely being used in legal trials as a defense by criminals who are considered as psychopaths. These findings may help clinicians in better understanding the condition and correctly identifying psychopaths who are under trial.
The authors note that further research into the neurophysiology of the psychopathic brains may help psychiatrists in designing an appropriate treatment program to make the psychopaths realize the implications of their negative actions.
The study was funded by National Institute of Mental Health and the findings were published in the JAMA Psychiatry.