- Psychopathy affects around 20 to 30% of U.S. prison population
- This compares with just 1% of the general U.S. population
- Prisoners shown video footage of people being intentionally hurt
- MRI scans revealed distinct differences in brains’ responses
PUBLISHED: 14:27 EST, 24 April 2013 | UPDATED: 14:29 EST, 24 April 2013
Don’t blame Hannibal Lecter – he can’t help being a callous, murdering monster.
New research suggests psychopaths lack basic hard-wiring in the brain that enables most people to be compassionate and caring, scientists say.
They say MRI scans revealed distinct differences in the way highly-psychopathic individuals’ and ordinary people’s brains reacted when they were shown footage of people being intentionally hurt.
No empathy: Psychopaths like Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter character lack basic hardwiring in the brain that enables humans to feel compassion, scientists say
Scientists at the University of Chicago studied 80 male prisoners aged between 18 and 50 who were assessed for psychopathic traits.
Around 20 to 30 per cent of the U.S. prison population is believed to be affected by psychopathy – compared with one per cent of the general population.
Study participants underwent brain scans while being shown videos of people being intentionally hurt and others of faces reacting to pain.
Their findings, published today, may help to shed light on why criminal psychopaths like cannibal Lecter, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, appear void of remorse or compassion.
Empathy: Scientists observed reduced activity in key areas of the brain when psychopathic individuals were shown videos of people being hurt
Psychopaths displayed significantly less activity in key areas of the brain including the amygdala – an almond-shaped bundle of neurons which plays an important role in processing emotions like fear, anger and pleasure.
The stunted response observed in the amygdala and in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was consistent with previous studies of psychopathy, researchers said.
Converseley, more activity was seen in the striatum and insula regions. The high activity recorded in the insula region surprised the scientists, as the area is central to emotion.
‘A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy,’ said lead researcher Professor Jean Decety.
‘This is the first time that neural processes associated with empathic processing have been directly examined in individuals with psychopathy, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain or distress.’
Psychopaths are known to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of repetitive crime and violence.
The University of Chicago study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, said: ‘The neural response to distress of others such as pain is thought to reflect an aversive response in the observer that may act as a trigger to inhibit aggression or prompt motivation to help.
‘Hence, examining the neural response of individuals with psychopathy as they view others being harmed or expressing pain is an effective probe into the neural processes underlying affective and empathy deficits in psychopathy.’
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