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Medicine Science

Psychopaths Have Brain Structure Abnormality 438

mmmscience writes "A group of scientists has identified a structure in the brain of psychopaths that is abnormal when compared with controls. The change is found in the uncinate fasciculus, a bridge of white matter that connects the amygdala (emotion/aggression brain region) and the orbitofrontal cortex (decision making region). Interestingly, the greater the abnormality in the region, the more severe the levels of sociopathy in a subject. The results were published as 'Altered connections on the road to psychopathy' in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. A researcher on the team suggests the finding could have considerable implications in the world of criminal justice, where such scans could one day be presented as evidence in a trial." The study's results have not yet been replicated by other researchers.
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Psychopaths Have Brain Structure Abnormality

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  • by Smoke2Joints ( 915787 ) on Tuesday August 04, 2009 @10:54PM (#28951581) Homepage

    Sometimes they occur together, but this is not always the case.

  • A much larger study is going to be needed to see if having this deformity is (a) unique to psychopaths, and (b) always present in them. If that's the case, great. A screening can be done early. If not, it sounds like a pretty scary way to lock people up in advance of them doing anything (which itself is a very very bad idea).

  • by Life2Short ( 593815 ) on Tuesday August 04, 2009 @11:11PM (#28951715)
    Not sure where you got that from. The difference in terms can be traced back to different theoretical perspectives on the same set of symptoms. Over time, the pendulum has shifted back and forth regarding whether the symptoms were the responsibility of the individual or the social environment the individual was raised in. If you think antisocial personality disorder is the result of individual choices or some sort of illness, you may be more likely to use the term psychopath. If you think that the symptoms are the result of a person's social environment, you may be more likely to use sociopath. The terms themselves do not denote two recognized different disorders. Check out DSM for definition of Antisocial Personality Disorder, or there's always Wikipedia [].
  • by hax4bux ( 209237 ) on Tuesday August 04, 2009 @11:14PM (#28951737)

    Ha, that was my first thought as well.

    You could brand it as a "leadership" test.

  • by 644bd346996 ( 1012333 ) on Tuesday August 04, 2009 @11:50PM (#28951993)
    They're hypothesized causes. You can't make any valid claims about the correlation between causes when you can't actually test for either one, so while it may be true that conflating the two terms is improper, the OP still managed to be wrong, too.
  • by Bobb9000 ( 796960 ) on Tuesday August 04, 2009 @11:51PM (#28952007)
    I'm not a psychiatrist, but I believe you may be thinking of this study and its precursors []: Rice, M. (1997). Violent offender research and implications for the criminal justice system. American Psychologist, 52(4), 414-423. At least, a number of sources seem to cite to it for this claim, which is actually very interesting. One explanation was that the therapy served to increase the subjects' sense of self-worth and confidence, which made them even more dangerous. For them, only medication seemed to do any good. If the research the article describes can add more options, that seems to me like a good thing.
  • by Darth Cider ( 320236 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:50AM (#28952303)

    When Wilder Penfield discovered that stimulating a subject's brain cells with an electrode would elicit a particular thought, action, memory or feeling - and in a repeatable fashion, if the same cells were stimulated again and again - a secondary discovery was made, one that is not well known. The subjects always thought that they had willed those thoughts, actions, memories and feelings into existence. They were unaware that any agency other than their own volition was responsible, even though they were well aware of what was being done to them.

    It's very freaky, isn't it? That with a microvolt of electricity delivered to some region of your brain, you would think you'd decided of your OWN ACCORD to slap yourself in the forehead? To recall a childhood playground? To feel amorous or vindictive?

    PET scans of psychopaths often show damage to the prefrontal cortex, which manage inhibition, but the damage is often so subtle that it's usually overlooked. Law enforcement isn't interested in providing excuses for criminal behavior, so it's rare that a neurologist is called in. Usually, the forensics are done as part of an academic research project. What prevents anyone from acting on a dark impulse, which we all have? Only a miniscule region of the brain that acts as an off switch to those impulses. Those regions are very delicate, and often the first clue to a neuropsychologist is evidence of a scar on the subject's forehead. Maybe the damage happened in a car accident. Maybe they were hit with a rock. Maybe they were dropped as babies. (No joke.)

    It's well and good to quarantine such people, to protect society, but the deeper issue of moral responsibility isn't as trivial as your quote suggests. We all have a behavior or tendency we would like to control, but which we find difficult to manage. We all have thoughts that, if acted upon, would get us in deep trouble. The difference between a thought and an action might be a gram or two of brain cells (maybe not even that much) and nothing more.

    Yeah, well? Does that mean eugenics is a good idea? Does that mean deep DNA screening is the most cost effective way of preventing crime? Whatever happens, moral outrage is about the bluntest instrument available. That thing you were thinking about yesterday? How you'd like to do something to your boss? Well, did you remand yourself to the police? That desire you felt for your wife's girlfriend? Uh oh. Acting on that impulse could have landed you in jail at one time in history, too.

  • by electrons_are_brave ( 1344423 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:53AM (#28952319)
    "Psychopath" was a term introduced in 1888 by German Psychiatrist Koch. It just meant someone with a psychopathology (i.e. a mental illness not otherwise named - a very broad category.

    It's meaning was dramatically narrowed in 1928 when the psychologist Partridge redefined it to mean people who were anti-social, egocentric, manipulative etc. In 1930, Partridge further proposed that it be replaced with the term "sociopathy". He later proposed that that the two terms could be used to disctinguih between people who had a genetic disorder (psychopath) or an environmentally produced disorder (sociopath).

    (From: The psychopath By Hugues Hervé, John C. Yuille).

    The terms aren't used diagnostically, at least not where I am. In my neck of the woods, it's "narcisistic personality disorder" for those who have no criminal activity and "antisocial personality disorder" for those who do. Which I find very much a 19th Century way of looking at it - a diagnosis based on a moral distinction.

  • by Gerzel ( 240421 ) * <> on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:08AM (#28952397) Journal

    Brain structures are not genetic in all cases.

  • by MindlessAutomata ( 1282944 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @02:47AM (#28953109)

    The terms aren't used diagnostically, at least not where I am. In my neck of the woods, it's "narcisistic personality disorder" for those who have no criminal activity and "antisocial personality disorder" for those who do.

    Incorrect. They are related disorders, but the criteria is not the same. From wikipedia, which lists the DSM-IVTR:

    APD - 3 or more of the following

    1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
          2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
          3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
          4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
          5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
          6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
          7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

    NPD - A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

    1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
          2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love (megalomania)
          3. Believes they are "special" and can only be understood by, or should associate with, people (or institutions) who are also "special" or of high status
          4. Requires excessive admiration
          5. Has a sense of entitlement
          6. Is interpersonally exploitative
          7. Lacks empathy
          8. Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
          9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

    Note that the DSM-IVTR, more appropriately, is not the be-all end-all of diagnosing but is more of a guidebook and a way to standardize diagnoses. Notice that criminal activity is not necessarily a factor in rendering either diagnosis. Next time, inform yourself before spreading misinformation. NPD is characterized more by a self-centeredness, APD is characterized more by a willingness to hurt or use others for personal gain. These are not the same things.

  • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:3, Informative)

    by selven ( 1556643 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:32AM (#28953425)
    If A correlates with B, then one of the following is true:

    1) A causes B

    2) B causes A

    3) Another factor C causes both A and B (as in the ice cream and sharks example)

    4) It's all a coincidence. For something with a very small sample size (like shark deaths, AFAIK there are only about 10 of them per year) this is a very real possibility.
  • So, does that mean (Score:2, Informative)

    by Fengpost ( 907072 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:52AM (#28954047)
    most of the CEOs have the brain structure abnormality? []
  • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:3, Informative)

    by thisnamestoolong ( 1584383 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @06:48AM (#28954901)

    One additional observation - any test for "crazy" that's solid enough to preclude punishment for a crime is also solid enough to imprison those who fail the test even if they have not yet comitted any crime.

    Important distinction -- Psychopath != Dangerous Murderer -- Many, many psychopaths end up in business and politics and use their extreme lack of empathy to make billions of dollars (or start wars and enact Patriot Acts) instead of carving up prostitutes. Mind you, I find these A-holes to be every bit as evil as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, but they are still not going to be violating the law.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:24AM (#28956121)

    I generally don't feed the trolls, but this viewpoint, popular in the scientific community in the 1800s has been widely discredited. For a fascinating read on the history of "scientific racism," including these studies of cranial abnormalities, you can read Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man."

    Chapter two opens: "Appeals to reason or to the nature of the universe have been used throughout history to enshrine existing hierarchies as proper an inevitable. The hierarchies rarely endure for more than a few generations, but the arguments, refurbished for the next round of social institutions, cycle endlessly."

    Gould goes on to systematically take apart these studies piece by piece. It started with scientists working to prove their own racist assumptions about rankings of various racial groups and continued with the unquestioning use of flawed methodology. You repeat this conclusion-first type of thinking in your post.

    A nice counterexample is the fact that people can be born without large portions of cerebral cortex or have it removed at a young age for epilepsy and still lead normal lives. Brain size is not a very useful measure of function. I have smart friends with little heads.

    As for your attempts to link race with violence, I think that the stronger correlation is not with race, but with poverty. You could also throw in some counterexamples here like various genocides (Europe, Native Americans), or the employment of slavery by certain ethnic groups to demonstrate their moral inferiority. Its not that Caucasians are morally inferior, just that they have been in power lately and more able to commit these offenses, just as other ethnic groups have been out of power.

    As for your comments about IQ, I really don't know what to say, but I have no idea how you draw your conclusions. Lets assume for fun that the IQ test is actually a useful measure and that your uncited data about IQ differences was actually measured by someone. Then you have correlation, not causation. Then you get to look at other possible reasons for this correlation, say, such as the Japanese educational system versus a situation in many parts of the world where kids can't afford school because they have to work to contribute to the family and they would have to pay fees they cannot afford to attend inadequate schools.

  • by Hasai ( 131313 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:48AM (#28957529)

    I think I can put this into a nutshell for you:

    A psychopath shoots you because the voices in his head told him to.

    A sociopath shoots you because he wanted to function-check his weapon.

  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:10AM (#28957951) Homepage Journal

    And not all psycho's are criminals so we still have free will. We humans are wired for more things then you probably realize, doesn't mean we have to listen to it. Our body needs to breathe, but we can drown ourselves. Our body hates pain, but people put themselves on fire out of protest. We need to eat, yet some starve themselves to death. If we can be heroes against our nature then we can at least expect others to remain normal against their nature.

    Starving oneself to death is hard, but the effort required lasts only tens of days. Imagine trying to maintain that level of will for the remainder of your natural life (that is, you won't die). Even anorexics routinely give in to the urge to eat. People who drown themselves do so by setting up conditione where they will be unable to avoid drowning later. If you just stick your head under water in the sink, you WILL save yourself. Now imagine drowning yourself by simply sticking your head in a sinkfull of water when you cannot even imagine a reason why you should drown. Imagine burning yourself if you can't imagine a reason (even a bad one) why you should be burned.

    Now imagine burning yourself when you can't imagine a reason you should be burned AND successfully performing any normal task we do in life AT THE SAME TIME. Hold your hand over a candle while you enjoy a ham sandwich for example. Try it while you're at work. Be sure not to let your productivity slip in the process. Take your hand out of the flame for even an instant and we'll chuck you in prison.

    If we can be heroes against our nature then we can at least expect others to remain normal against their nature.

    You phrased that as if it would be a lesser accomplishment. If it';s against their nature, it is not an act of remaining normal, it is an act of being a hero against their nature. To expect them to manage that for an entire lifetime when the few who manage it at all do so for weeks at most and only by ignoring all other aspects of life and when most cannot manage it at all is just absurd.

    Consider how effective other "just say no" programs have been. I'm not at all saying psychopaths should be allowed to roam free doing whatever comes to mind, just that our current "correctional" system approach is useless and quite probably immoral.

I bet the human brain is a kludge. -- Marvin Minsky