News archive 2006
Biological brain differences in criminal psychopaths6 December 2006, PR 160/06
Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's have identified that the way in which the brain processes other people's emotions could be one reason why criminal psychopaths do not care about others. Their findings are published in a new study in The British Journal of Psychiatry.
By scanning the brain emotional responses of six men who had committed repeat offences – such as attempted murder, rape with strangulation and grievous bodily harm – and comparing them to the scans of nine healthy volunteers, researchers, led by Declan Murphy, Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute, have deduced that psychopaths may have learned to dampen their brain's response to other people's distress signals.
It has been suggested that people with psychopathic disorders lack empathy because they have defects in processing facial and vocal expressions of distress, such as fear and sadness in others. The aims of this study were to investigate brain function when people with psychopathy, and a control group, process facial emotion.
Professor Murphy comments: ‘We've never been able to look directly in the brain before and what we found is that when psychopaths were exposed to frightened faces the distress cue didn't increase the psychopath's blood flow. It decreased it.'
All six subjects scored highly on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which looks for the presence of cunning, manipulative or exploitative behaviours as well as the lack of guilt or remorse.
Tom Fahy, Professor of Forensic Mental Health and co-author of the study, said that the condition might be inherited or acquired through very deprived and abusive childhoods. He added that the findings of the study opened possibilities for new treatments other than counselling therapies, and could be used to identify people who had a higher risk of re-offending.
‘Psychopaths currently respond pretty poorly to treatment but this biological problem could be used as a marker for people who say they have recovered but actually haven't,' concludes Professor Murphy.
The researchers used a brain imaging technique known as event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine neural responses when people with psychopathy and a control group viewed expressions of distress (fearful faces), of positive emotion (happy faces), and neutral faces.
More research is now needed to clarify how brain abnormalities in people with psychopathy arise, and how they affect social behaviour and socialisation.
For further information contact Camilla Saunders, Public Relations Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London
Tel: 020 7848 0483. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes to editorsThe Institute of Psychiatry
The Institute of Psychiatry is part of King's College London and closely affiliated to the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. The Institute is a world-renowned centre for treatment, research and training in psychiatry and mental health. The organisation is involved in pioneering new and improved ways of understanding and treating mental illness and brain disease. Its wide-ranging field of work includes depression, trauma, eating disorders, brain imaging, genetics and psychosis.
King's College London
King's College London is the fourth oldest university in England with more than 13,700 undergraduates and nearly 5,600 graduate students in nine schools of study based at five London campuses. It is a member of the Russell Group: a coalition of the UK's major research-based universities. The College has had 24 of its subject-areas awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level, and it has recently received an excellent result in its audit by the Quality Assurance Agency.
King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, international relations, medicine, nursing and the sciences, and has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe and is home to four Medical Research Council Centres, more than any other university.
King's is in the top group of UK universities for research earnings, with income from grants and contracts of more than £100 million, and has an annual turnover of more than £363 million.
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