What makes a psychopath's brain different?

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There's no neurological disorder quite as infamous as psychopathy, and yet figuring out exactly what goes on in a psychopath's brain is extraordinarily difficult. We've now got an answer...and all it took was scanning the brains of forty medium-security prisoners.

Specifically, the new findings come from brain imaging performed on forty inmates at a medium-security prison in Wisconsin. Twenty of the prisoners had been diagnosed as psychopaths, while the other twenty - who had committed similar crimes - had not been given that diagnosis.


The tests found some crucial differences in the two sets of brains around the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that focuses on feelings like empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which is associated with fear and anxiety. The psychopaths' brains had significantly reduced connections between the two areas. The imaging tests showed the white matter fibers that connected these two areas had significantly reduced integrity in the psychopaths' brains, as well as generally reduced coordination between the activities of these two brain regions.

University of Wisconsin researcher Michael Koenigs explains:

"This is the first study to show both structural and functional differences in the brains of people diagnosed with psychopathy. Those two structures in the brain, which are believed to regulate emotion and social behavior, seem to not be communicating as they should."


These results are indicative of some clear structural indicators of psychopathy, although it's probable that the exact causes of the conditions are too complex to be capture in a single brain scan. Still, fellow researcher Joseph Newman says he's hopeful that work like this will help provide treatment for those dealing with the condition. The research also tallies well with Koenigs and Newman's previous work, which showed similar behavioral patterns between diagnosed psychopaths and people who had suffered injuries to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Newman adds:

"The combination of structural and functional abnormalities provides compelling evidence that the dysfunction observed in this crucial social-emotional circuitry is a stable characteristic of our psychopathic offenders. I am optimistic that our ongoing collaborative work will shed more light on the source of this dysfunction and strategies for treating the problem."


Via the Journal of Neuroscience. Image by Image by Viktoriya, via Shutterstock.