The brains of violent psychopaths are structurally different from others in society, meaning they should receive specialized treatment at an early age, according to a study involving Canadian and British researchers.
“Those who develop psychopathy waste their lives, cause immeasurable . . . suffering to those around them and to the victims of their aggressive behaviour, and impose a financial burden on Canadian society,” Sheilagh Hodgins of the University of Montreal’s psychiatry department said in an interview.
“So furthering understanding of the neural bases of this syndrome will allow us to develop learning-based interventions to prevent it.”
Hodgins is co-author, with Dr. Nigel Blackwood of King’s College London, of “Punishment and Psychopathy,” published in the current issue of The Lancet Psychiatry.
Hodgins noted that one in five violent criminal offenders is a psychopath, and that they have higher rates of recidivism than other convicts.
Canadian killers like Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olson are among those diagnosed with psychopathic personalities, meaning they lack empathy and are callous, glib, manipulative, shallow and violent.
In their research, Hodgins, Blackwood and their team conducted MRI scans on prisoners convicted of murder, attempted murder, rape and grievous bodily harm in the United Kingdom.
Scans were done on 12 violent psychopaths, 20 violent criminals who are not psychopaths and 18 healthy noncriminals.
The researchers found the psychopaths displayed abnormalities in white matter regions of the brain associated with learning from reward and punishment.
They also displayed lower volumes of grey matter in parts of the brain connected to guilt, embarrassment, empathy and moral reasoning.
The other violent inmates showed similar results to the healthy noncriminals.
The violent offenders who aren’t psychopaths are hotheaded and hyper responsive to threats while psychopaths are cold-hearted and calculating.
Children with psychopathic tendencies tend to be unemotional, callous and disruptive.
For such a child, researchers suggest it’s best to focus on rewards and learning-based interventions.
“Parent-training programs are effective for reducing conduct problems among most children,” Hodgins said. “Unfortunately, the subgroup of children with conduct problems who also present callousness fail to benefit when their parents learn optimal parenting skills.”
Hodgins said punishments like timeouts may work for most children, but not for young psychopaths.
“In studies of them, they learn from rewards but fail to learn from sanctions such as being put in the corner for a couple of minutes or losing a privilege,” Hodgins said. “Other children with conduct problems learn from both rewards and punishments.
“We do not diagnose psychopathy in children. Rather parents and teachers easily identify conduct problems — persistent disobedience and aggressive behaviour.”
Those children are at risk to be rejected by their parents, teachers and peers, and for negative behaviour to escalate with age, she said.
“It is presently not known what proportion of children with conduct problems and high levels of callousness will actually develop the syndrome of psychopathy in adulthood,” Hodgins said.
“However, regardless they merit treatment to reduce their conduct problems before these problems bring about rejection from others and school failure.”