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Are Psychopaths “Brain Damaged”?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Pathway from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala

We all have a ghoulish fascination with the Hannibal Lecters of this world. That’s because many of the most-publicized stories about psychopaths can be quickly banged into a Hollywood script. One of the most absorbing accounts that I’ve come across recently, however, was in an advance reading copy of a book by Paul J. Zak, due in May, called The Moral Molecule. The book, which deals largely with the hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin and its role in social interactions, has a section on the psychopath.

Zak is a noted researcher on oxytocin, sometimes called “the love hormone” for its role in fostering trust and empathy. (See the article by Zak on trust in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American.) His studies have chronicled how various social disorders have been linked to disruptions of the chemical’s normal functioning. In one chapter, he recounts how former computer programmer and entrepreneur Hans Reiser, now a resident of a state penitentiary, had killed his wife and then went on to request an appeal of his conviction. Citing Zak’s research, Reiser claimed that his attorney during the trial had suffered from a brain dysfunction that produced abnormal levels of oxytocin and therefore displayed insufficient empathy to represent Reiser in court. Sorry, Hans. Nice try.

The bizarrely intricate reasoning of the psychopath is what fascinates. And it is not just the prison cell where these stories can be found. The psychopathic personality type turned up in Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. And Occupy Wall Street could have a field day: among the 1 percent of the population characterized as psychopaths, a not insignificant number are thought to occupy the corporate suite. A recent study conducted by New York psychologist Paul Babiak showed that one in 25 business leaders may meet the criteria for classification as psychopaths.

Imaging and other research are creating an emerging picture of what’s happening right behind your forehead, the seat of “executive function” that governs self control. (picture the area right around the Ash Wednesday spot, the Hindu tilaka or, perhaps most appropriately in this context, the mark of the beast from the Book of Revelations).

The retinue of brain-scanning technologies has been put to work to reveal the neural superhighways that stretch from the executive control center in the frontal lobes back to other, more primal areas, deeper in the brain. To do these studies often requires schlepping a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine on a tractor trailer into a prison, where about a quarter of the population meets the criteria for psychopath as established by Robert Hare from the University of British Columbia. (See “Inside the Mind of a Psychopath in in Scientific American Mind by Kent A. Kiehl and Joshua W. Bucholtz.)

Perhaps the latest and one of the best examples of this inside-the gates, inside-the mind research appeared in the November 30 Journal of Neuroscience, when Kiehl, Joseph Newman (a heavyweight in this area), and colleagues Michael Koenigs and Julian Motzkin reported on 20 diagnosed psychopaths and 20 other non-psychopaths who had committed similar crimes and were housed at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. The researchers used two types of imaging—one of the integrity of the white matter in brain-cell connecting fibers and a second of brain activity itself. The study’s most important finding centered on impairments in the link between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a control node for regulating emotion, threats, decision-making and social behavior) and the amygdala, a locus of emotional processing.

Koenigs, who studies brain injuries in this area of the frontal cortex, knows that damage there can often produce alterations in personality. In theory, the faulty interaction between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex could fail to provide the proper negative emotional cue that robbing a bank or a ripping off a friend is just not kosher. Further tests are needed to confirm the implications of this breakdown in communication in the brain’s internal social network.

This finding, though, could also extend work by Newman that indicates that psychopathy may result from what he calls an “attention bottleneck.” Psychopaths may focus fixedly on one goal and ignore all other social cues, perhaps even signals sent over the prefrontal-to-amygdala pathway. Remember, Anthony Hopkins’s stare in the poster for the movie?

The study of psychopathy has profound implications for the criminal justice system. If psychopaths are, in fact, brain damaged in some sense, will the law have to be changed to allow them to enter an insanity defense? (See “Neuroscience in the Courtroom” by Michael S. Gazzaniga in April 2011.) Both lawyers and scientists will inevitably have to accommodate these shifts in our understanding of the brain’s workings. The University of Wisconsin, in fact, has just established a program that will allow students to earn a law degree while at the same time procuring a doctorate in neuroscience. Imagine the courtroom of tomorrow: “Your honor, I would like to enter this diffusion tensor image of my client’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex.”

Source: University of Wisconsisn School of Medicine and Public Health




Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bigbopper 11:35 am 12/6/2011

    Brain “damaged” or just brain “different”? A related question: to what extent is psychopathic behavior adaptive in certain situations, and thus potentially evolutionarily conserved?

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  2. 2. Gary Stix 11:45 am 12/6/2011

    Could be damaged. Could be different. Think Phineas Gage or abused children who develop behavioral disorders because of physical trauma or environmental insults.

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  3. 3. bigbopper 12:15 pm 12/6/2011

    By “different” I am implying (to quote that esteemed thinker Lady Gaga) “born this way”. I.e., a perfectly “normal” variant of human brain structure function in the sense that no “damage” is involved. This would not exclude that a similar end result could arise from damage also.

    In a more general sense, there is a natural tendency for behavior which is perceived as “abnormal” in some context to be pathologized; i.e., it must be aberrant, or due to brain damage, or however you want to describe it. But is it really accurate to call psychopaths “abnormal” in a biological sense? Maybe it’s just one subtype in the full repertoire of “normal” human behavior in the sense that it arises in a subset of individuals with a somewhat different but biologically completely “normal” brain structure.

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  4. 4. ronburley 1:06 pm 12/6/2011

    Damaged or different, it really doesn’t matter as far as society’s safety is concerned. If an individual’s brain structure allows them to make decisions to deliberately harm other people, then that person must be removed from society until that condition no longer persists.

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  5. 5. johnlove5 1:18 pm 12/6/2011

    I have always been a believer in “guilty by reason of insanity”

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  6. 6. Cogitari 2:56 pm 12/6/2011

    I’m with bigbopper. If this “defect” is appearing at four times it’s natural rate among top business leaders, it seems like it is (or at least can be) a very successful variant. Perhaps the problem is that to be a successful psychopath requires a large amount of intelligence or a good upbringing, otherwise you end up in jail. If this were the case I would expect to see a bimodal distribution–one group of psychopaths in high-status positions, another in very low positions and relatively few “average people”.

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  7. 7. Cogitari 3:04 pm 12/6/2011

    Ronburley: But people are required to deliberately harm others all the time. Presidents declare war, generals send troops into battle, judges send people to prison. It is a matter of only doing it when necessary. Do successful psychopaths violate this rule? I doubt we have the answer at this time.

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  8. 8. Gary Stix 3:51 pm 12/6/2011

    Bigbopper: I agree: Damaged, Phineas Gage. Different, Gordon Gekko.

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  9. 9. alan6302 10:06 pm 12/6/2011

    nutritional deficient is a big factor. After all how is the brain to function if the food and oxygen is missing.Portions of the brain will simply shut down or misfire.

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  10. 10. Mark Jean 11:18 pm 12/6/2011

    Sorry to disagree. Data? Rather, Senior Editor Gary Stix recalls Anthony Hopkins stare in a movie.

    If Gary is promoting that psychopaths & sociopaths might have biological alibis for lacking executive functioning – what about all the psychos who are charming & charismatic? The last thing these guys lack is emotional intelligence, executive function, or political skill. It’s a moral compass they lack.

    Should we figure out how to better identify & fix faulty moral compasses? Yes. Excuse crimes due to “faulty wiring?” No.

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  11. 11. Quentin 11:19 am 12/7/2011

    I am interested in Stix’s remark that one in 25 business leaders may have psychopathic characteristics.

    I am thinking now of the big bankers who had a strong influence in speedy growth at the potential risk both to shareholders and to the tax payer. Their business decisions were often both self-seeking and bizarre. And if their salaries, bonuses and pay-offs are anything to go by, taken at no risk to themselves.

    What further characteristics would one expect? I would expect an impressive and fluent presence to the outside world, a considerable talent for self justification, a capacity to re-write history. And I would not be surprised to find that they had poor personal relationships with many of their subordinates, and possibly a propensity towards bullying any subordinate who appeared to threaten the leader’s power.

    But I am no expert – would others agree?

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  12. 12. jgrosay 12:34 pm 12/7/2011

    Are the neuroanathomy changes in the brains of psychopats, or in the brains of any other people with DSM-V mental disorders the cause, an effect, or just a marker ?. The process of socialization and learning involves the selective destruction of groups of neurons, and this leaves a mark in the person’s brain. Until there’s a large and long time enough database on the development of brains, both for accepted and not-accepted mental traits, all this may be little more than speculations with an scientific wording. Regarding the comment in the article, that some 1 in 25 of managers can be considered psychopats, it was known from many years ago that people in the top social positions, and people in the lowest part of the social “pyramid”, tend to be more similar than to the people in the middle of social body. Psychopats do have a high empathy, they know how to manipulate and obtain what they want from others, and are highly goal oriented, as maniacs are. If one considers that the upper management positions do require more personal relationships skills than technical ones, and as psychopats tend to drive themselves to positions with high revenues and low work burden, that they in some way recognize one another and get some kind of reward from other psychopats, it’s just the way we are that eases the way for these people to succeed. Anyway: as long as they are not perverse psychopats, the kind of them that do harm just for pleasure of doing it ( Remember the country song: I killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die ), its a price we must pay for avoiding some worse problems. Do you have envy of some of the psychopatic people ? Do the same if you think it’s right; until they, or anybody else commits some kind of crime, harm others, or takes decisions that are noxious for the rest of people, they’re not your business, or anybody else’s. The idea and the drive to have a society composed just of people that meet YOUR concept or normality, or of good, is another kind of psychopatology, and not better or more pleasant than others’. Salut +

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  13. 13. DeDum 5:54 pm 12/7/2011

    I am no expert either, but wonder how if birth trauma could contribute to psychopathy. Not to mention added trauma by forceps.

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  14. 14. Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz 1:41 am 12/8/2011

    After the fall of Adam and Eve, all of our genes are sort of screwed up (more or less).

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  15. 15. Shortie 8:16 pm 12/8/2011

    I do not have access to November 30 Journal of Neuroscience — the abstract is not sufficient.
    Kiehl, Newman, Koenigs and Motzkin reported on 20 diagnosed psychopaths and 20 other non-psychopaths who had committed similar crimes.
    20 psycho + 20 non BUT SAME CRIME. Even if scans were different, what would it indicate? Even non-psychopaths can be criminals? Or that clinically diagnosed psychopaths display different scan types. If the latter, the location of the subjects is unimportant, and the assumption is that those NOT diagnosed as ‘psychopaths’, are, in fact, DIFFERENT — ie, the clinical diagnosis is definitive. The MEANING of the word psychopath is not at all well-defined — even in the psychiatric /diagnostic literature.
    All in all, a very ambiguous article.

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  16. 16. Chrysallis 4:25 pm 12/10/2011

    I’m probably going to get in trouble with the ACLU people for audaciously suggesting this; how about a pediatric brain scan to identify early on which kid will eventually grow up to act out his/her psychopathic tendencies. Maybe there are ways to suppress such behavior from coming out. Is that even possible???

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  17. 17. ConsultingCryptanalyst 1:18 am 04/3/2012

    I’d say that psychopaths not brain damaged, as I think that “damaged” implies that something physical happened which made the person’s brain function at a lesser capacity than it had previously.
    However, brain different can mean something else such as ADHD or executive functioning issues, both of which I have been diagnosed with.

    To address the link between executive functioning deficiencies and psychopathy: at the time of my diagnosis I was told that it meant that I had a hard time doing things like staying organized and on top of my work, that it meant I probably had a hard time with time management and anything someone like an office manager might have to do, not that it was very related to psychopathy.

    Not only do I have executive functioning problems though, but I also have a conscience and tons of empathy, and personally knowing both psychopaths and sociopaths, and I can tell you that just because I have executive functioning problems does not mean that I am a psychopath or a sociopath.

    The last thing I’d like to say is that my best friend is a sociopath, and while sometimes I have to remind her that, “That hurts my feelings” or “That’s a bit not good” when I might not have to say so to my other friends, she’s still my best friend and for good reasons too — she’s smart, funny, witty, and she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind among many other great qualities. I don’t feel I have anything to fear from her at all, and if I did I wouldn’t be friends with her. She may not necessarily “feel bad” about hurting my feelings, but she likes having me as a friend so she’ll try not to do whatever it was again because she knows I don’t like it, and that’s all that matters to me. If that’s the way she works, then so be it.

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