Is this proof evil killers are born not made? Psychopaths’ brains ‘lack basic wiring that triggers empathy and compassion’

  • 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

By  Kerry Mcdermott

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 

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 

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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