"Study: Psychopaths Have 'Potholed' Brains"
by Kate Kelland, Reuters / ABC Science
by Kate Kelland, Reuters / ABC Science
"Psychopaths have faulty connections between the part of the brain dealing with emotions and that which handles impulses and decision-making, scientists have found. In a study of psychopaths who had committed murder, manslaughter, multiple rape, strangulation and false imprisonment, the British scientists found that roads linking the two crucial brain areas had "potholes", while those of non-psychopaths were in good shape.
The study opens up the possibility of developing treatments for dangerous psychopaths in the future, says Dr Michael Craig of the Institute of Psychiatry at London's King's College Hospital, and may have profound implications for doctors, researchers and the criminal justice system. "These were particular serious offenders with psychopathy and without any other mental illnesses," he says. "Essentially what we found is that the connections in the psychopaths were not as good as the connections in the non-psychopaths. I would describe them as roads between the two areas, and we found that in the psychopaths, the roads had potholes and weren't very well maintained."
Timing is key: The scientists caution against suggestions the study could lead to screening of potential psychopathic criminals before they are able to commit crimes, saying their findings had not established how, when or why the brain links were damaged. Psychopathic extremes have been portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters by characters like the serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter. They often violate social norms, are manipulative, impulsive and sensation-seeking, and appear to feel no empathy or remorse.
Craig, who is lead author of the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, stresses that the number of brain scans in the study was small, with only nine psychopaths analysed compared to nine non-psychopaths. "Trying to get people of this particular type to take part in a study, and also then deal with all the security you need to get them into a brain scanner, is not an easy feat," he says.
The study used a new brain imaging technology to further analyse psychopaths' brains after previous studies found that the amygdala part of the brain, which processes emotions, and orbitofrontal cortex, which handles impulses and decisions, are structurally and functionally different in psychopaths. "Up until recently the technology hasn't been available to look at the connections between those two brain areas in any meaningful way," says Craig. But a new technique, called diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DT-MRI), allows the researchers to look at the white matter tract linking the two key brain areas.
As well as finding clear structural deficits in the tract in psychopathic brains, they also found the degree of abnormality was significantly linked to the degree of psychopathy. "As for the moral significance for society, and how society wants to deal with these things, that is a little premature," says Craig. "This is a small study and the important thing it raises is that more research needs to be done."
by Paul Wilson, ABC Science
by Paul Wilson, ABC Science
"Psychopaths are usually egocentric and often experience little guilt or remorse for their actions. The successful TV series Dexter, based on Jeff Lindsay's novels of the same name, follows Dexter Morgan, a forensic blood spatter expert for the Miami Dade Police Department. He hunts down people who have escaped justice and then kills them. Quirky, charming but often murderously violent Dexter's character oscillates between normality and controlled psychopathic fury. But does Dexter represent the typical psychopathic serial killer? For that matter do psychopaths really exist or are they, as some psychologists believe, simply a media and writers' beat-up, a condition that has never been scientifically established?
While I am sceptical about many psychological categorisations and believe that it is always difficult to pigeon-hole humans into neat diagnostic packages, there is a great deal of evidence that psychopaths really do exist. More surprising to many is that violent serial killers - such as Ted Bundy, Australian child killer Derek Percy or even fiction's Dexter - are not necessarily stereotypical psychopaths.
While many psychopaths are violent criminals, others prefer to stay within the bounds of the law and achieve their career or interpersonal aspirations by manipulation and intimidation. Indeed, there is an increasing amount of evidence that corrupt politicians and businessmen, unethical lawyers, some radical activists and many others who may have reached positions of authority or power have psychopathic personalities. And these are the psychopaths we are more likely to encounter or be affected by in our lives.
What is a psychopath? Although there are many evidence-based psychological tests to measure psychopathy, the most well researched is undoubtedly Robert Hare's psychopathy checklist which is used extensively around the world. Hare describes psychopaths as "intra-species predators" who use charm, manipulation and/or violence to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience or real feelings they take what they want regardless of the consequences to others. In pursuing their goals they are likely to be cool under pressure, calm, emotionally flat and lacking in feeling. And by these criteria, Dexter is indeed a quintessential psychopath. The general consensus is that psychopaths don't change over time, although the number of their criminal acts might well reduce with age. However, most experts believe that they remain thoroughly unpleasant individuals throughout their life.
Psychopathy is a socially destructive personality disorder usually characterised by a combination of emotional, interpersonal and behavioural traits. The most common of these are egocentricity, extreme impulsivity coupled with irresponsible behaviour, pathological lying and a lack of guilt or remorse. The condition is not a defined mental illness - both legally and in a psychiatric sense psychopaths are generally declared sane, although there is some evidence that a combined diagnosis of schizophrenia and psychopathy occurs occasionally.
Psychopathy and crime: While psychopaths comprise around six per cent of the general population, it's estimated that between 15 and 25 per cent of the American male prison population and seven to 15 per cent of female prisoners are psychopaths. The figures for Australian prisons are thought to be lower, although no one knows for sure.
The crimes of psychopaths are not confined to violent predatory behaviour. Embezzlement, major fraud and many other "white collar" offences are also committed by psychopaths. But often the psychopaths who make headlines are the ones that represent the most violent and dangerous criminals. Those who commit child abduction and murder are very often sexual psychopaths, sadists who delight in inflicting emotional and physical pain on their victims. These men - and occasional woman - are driven by their wild and dangerously out-of-control fantasies that include acting out visions of domination, pain, humiliation and sexual perversion. It is often said that the people who commit these kinds of crimes lack empathy - the ability to identify with how other people feel. But I believe that this view distorts how psychopaths actually feel. [Comment: This is the author's opinion of course, but do Psychopaths actually 'feel' anything for other people?]
Violent sexual psychopaths have an urgent and intense desire to inflict pain and suffering and do actually identify with how their victims feel. Indeed, the more pain and suffering their victims suffer, the more pleasure they obtain - they identify with the pain, they simply do not care about the physical and psychological anguish that they cause.
Causes of psychopathy: A great deal of debate has occurred as to the origins of psychopathy - much of it a classic nature versus nurture argument. Many psychopaths have had appalling childhoods punctuated by parental, sexual or physical abuse by one or both parents. Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and many of Australia's and the world's worst serial killers have childhoods marked by these events, often reinforced by horrendous abuse in child or juvenile institutions for young offenders or those taken into care. However, these environments cannot by themselves explain why men and women become violent predators or psychopaths - if only because hundreds of thousands of children all over the world have similar upbringings and never commit any crime or develop psychopathy.
On the 'nature' side of the argument, there is some evidence of physiological differences in the brains of psychopaths. Preliminary neurophysiological research suggests that psychopaths fail to appreciate the emotional importance of events and that this may be related to brain dysfunction especially in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for processing emotions. More recent research has emphasised psychopathy as essentially a learning disability. For example Joseph Newman's work categorises the way that psychopaths think as an information processing problem that makes psychopaths oblivious to the implications of their actions when focussed on tasks that promise instant rewards. Clearly we are far from understanding the causes of this condition.
The future: We still have a lot to learn about the origins of psychopathy and how it manifests itself across cultures. A great deal of research is currently being conducted on the neurophysiological, psychological and social roots of psychopathy and how each may interact with each other. And in an exciting trend, researchers are increasingly focussing on community studies of psychopaths, rather than just confining their studies to the extreme sub-populations within prisons. This research is critical because few who have worked in this field doubt the enormous destructive power of the psychopathic personality, a personality that seems resilient to any known therapy or intervention."
Professor Paul Wilson, a forensic psychologist and criminologist at Bond University, was one of the guest speakers when ABC Science's Bernie Hobbs hosted "Café Scientific: The Science of Psychopaths in Storytelling" at the Brisbane Writers Festival. His most recent book, written with Amanda Howard, is "Predators: Killers without Conscience," published in Australia by New Holland."