The researchers say that the areas they have identified are known to be involved in control of decision-making related to fairness and evaluation of punishing stimuli.
"To our knowledge, this is the first study that examines the brain processes involved in humans' behavioural response to the threat of punishment for social norm violations," Manfred Spitzer, Ernst Fehr, and colleagues have written in the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press.
During the study, the researchers asked one person to decide how much money from a shared pot to give to a second recipient.
While the second person was merely a passive recipient of whatever amount the first person decided in the control condition, the former could decide to punish the first person by spending all or part of another pot of money in the punishment condition, reducing the first person's earnings.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging technique was used to scan the first person's brain during the control condition as well as the punishment condition, which showed activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex during the decision-making regarding an act that could bring the subject punishment.
The authors claim that their findings suggest a neural basis for treating children, adolescents, and even immature adults differently in the criminal justice system, as the neural circuitry for processing the threat of punishment is not as developed in younger individuals as it is in adults.
"As these brain areas are not yet fully developed in children, adolescents, or even young adults, our results are consistent with the view that these groups may be less able to activate the evaluative and inhibitory neural circuitry necessary for the appropriate processing of punishment threats. Thus, our results might provide support for the view that the criminal justice system should treat children, adolescents, and immature adults differently from adults," they wrote.
They also say that their findings may have implications for understanding the basis of psychopathic behaviour because people with lesions in the prefrontal areas show an inability to behave in appropriate ways, even though they understand social norms.
Thus, a dysfunction in the areas involved "might also underlie certain psychopathological disorders characterized by excessively selfish tendencies and a failure to obey basic social norms," they wrote.