Study Examines Brain Response to Empathy-Eliciting Scenarios Among Incarcerated Individuals With Psychopathy

In a study, Jean Decety, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, Illinois, and colleagues examined the potential differences in patterns of neural activity among incarcerated individuals with psychopathy and incarcerated persons serving as controls during the perception of empathy-eliciting stimuli depicting other people experiencing pain. (Online First)

A total of 80 incarcerated men participated in the study and were classified according to scores on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised as high (27 men), intermediate (28 men), or low (25 men) levels of psychopathy.

In response to pain and distress cues expressed by others, individuals with psychopathy exhibit deficits in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, the frontal lobes region of the brain that processes risk, fear and decision making, regardless of stimulus type and display selective impairment in processing facial cues of distress in regions associated with cognitive mentalizing, the study finds.

“A better understanding of the neural response to empathy-eliciting stimuli in psychopathy is necessary to inform intervention programs,” the study concludes.

(JAMA Psychiatry. Published online April 24, 2013. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.27.