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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 bigjarom ( 950328 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:01AM (#28951631) Journal
    I don't have the reference handy but I once came across a study showing that incarcerated psychopaths who undergo treatment for the condition are statistically more likely to demonstrate a greater degree of psychopathy in the future than are those who do not undergo treatment.
    Any psychiatrists out there want to back me up?
  • Test Bank CEOs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:05AM (#28951665) Homepage

    There's a hypothesis that CEOs are disproportionately selected for sociopathy. If that is true, particularly in the case of banks (which are too big to fail -- ie: they have a taxpayer sponsored safety net), then we have a vested interest in finding out if the hypothesis is true. []

    Given the lack of remorse, the ease with which they claim entitlement in the face of their own catastrophic failure, and that we have been left holding the tab, it seems that a concrete test like this might be reasonable.

    Just a thought.

  • by bananaquackmoo ( 1204116 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:15AM (#28951745)
    You're looking at symptoms. The terms denote different causes. Semantically, they are different words with different meanings. The parent was technically correct.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:19AM (#28951773)

    Since TFA doesn't give numbers, then the trap is fairly obvious. The public will read it as follows:

    • Convicted "psychopaths" have an identifiable abnormality in their brain.
    • "Normal" people don't have this abnormality.
    • Therefore, anyone with this abnormality is (or will be) a convicted psychopath....thus leading to a real life Future Crimes Office.

    The real questions (and I'm sure that defense attorneys will pile on this one), are "How many people with this abnormality do not end up convicted of violent crimes?" and "How many people convicted of violent crimes do not have this abnormality?"

    Not everyone with a fskced-up brain is dangerous, and not everyone with a "normal" brain is safe. I would argue that your average human being is fairly dangerous as a single unit....and that danger goes up exponentially as the group size increases. Mob justice, anyone?

  • by kzieli ( 1355557 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:32AM (#28951859) Homepage
    Its simple enough. Eventually we will find the biological basis of every opinion you hold. Then we will find how to correct any abnormalities. Once we have done that their will be an end to crime, an end to decent. Oh yes elections won't be necessary either as the clinical records of your last brain scan will clearly indicate who your preferred candidate is. And if you don't like it we will change your mind : )
  • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Architect_sasyr ( 938685 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:34AM (#28951877)
    Ok, why is the increased sale of ice cream correlated to the increased number of shark attacks? Or murder?

    In reality, it's probably the heat putting more people in the water, but the sale of ice cream doesn't rely imply the possibility of a shark attack. The heat too makes people frustrated and more annoyed, so more likely to snap, but these are environmental contributing factors - any individual capable of murder is capable of it during any period of hightened stress and annoyance, not just in summer.

    But yes, if we didn't correlate we wouldn't have figured out that putting sticks into the fire was a good idea.
  • by joocemann ( 1273720 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:42AM (#28951947)

    Do you know that 2% of the regular population has antisocial disorder? Do you know that 70% of prison inmates have it? .... a little factoid I like to share when I talk about dogs that bark, birds that fly, and genetically differentiable humans that do things differently.

    But my point is to ask you... what do we do with them? So we confirm they're a psychopath, we acknowledge its bad to really 'punish' them because it was unavoiadble.... but then what? I guess the answer is a nice cushy white box with 3 hots and a cot...

  • by slashqwerty ( 1099091 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:44AM (#28951963)
    When I was in school 10 years ago they taught us that Psychopathy is the deprecated term for Antisocial Personality Disorder [] (APD). People with APD have a different physiological response to pain, lying, and suffering than the general population. Research has linked it with both genetic and environmental factors. It's quite possible, even likely, that law-abiding people have the same physiological characteristics as Psychopaths but were raised in an environment which countered those characteristics.

    This research has important implications for developing a treatment for APD. A treatment could take the form of drugs, therapy, or both.

    Regarding this being brought up in court, it seems likely to me the defense would use it to argue for a reduced sentence since the defendant, through no fault of his own, didn't have complete control of his faculties. Since he has discovered that he has APD he can seek more effective treatment than a prison sentence.
  • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:16AM (#28952157) Journal


    Our legal system is based on the concept of choice; when you commit a crime, you are assumed to be making a conscious choice, and the fact of your doing it proves the choice that you made, and thus your guilt. The laws themselves read this way: part of the definition of a crime in California is that you must INTENTIONALLY perform the illegal act, but this is almost meaningless since it's assumed that you mean to do what you do.

    However, it's my belief that ultimately, there is no real choice. We are a product of our biology, genetics, epi-genetics, and experiences.We make choices based on the combination of these factors, and if it were, in fact, possible to account for all the minute variables in these factors, our decisions could be predicted in virtually every case.

    The more science news I read, the more firm this conclusion, and this is no exception. And the logic is real simple: if genetics didn't make us who we are, then dogs could talk and trade stocks. But they can't, because they are dogs, and they are dogs because of their genetics, epi-genetics, and biology. Their behavior as such a dog is modified by their experiences. (dogs that are beaten as puppies behave quite differently than those that are loved, even if neither trade stocks)

    So, at what point do we decide that the "temporary insanity" defense breaks down completely? If I speed because of my sum biology + experience, then can't it be argued that I really don't have a choice in speeding? (and yes, I do tend towards "lead foot", if you know what I mean) It's not anytime soon, but it's there, and if current trends continue, that point *will* be reached.

    When/if the singularity happens, and our personnae can be loaded as a self-morphing program into a computer, can't it be clearly demonstrated that the program does exactly what its structure dictates? Are we going to find MS Word guilty of having Clippy pop up in annoying ways, or do we just accept that it's the way it's constructed and thus has no real choice in the matter?

    We pretend that people have a choice, even as we accept that paedophiles will always be paedophiles, rapists will always be rapists, criminals will always have criminal tendencies, and that there is no true cure for any of these. Isn't that an admission that there is no choice, even if our very legal foundation is predicated upon its existence?


  • Re:Test Bank CEOs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:56AM (#28952329) Homepage

    1) It shouldn't matter if anyone is a sociopath as long as they do not break any laws.

    That is an interesting hypothesis, but I do not concur. Our economic system, the free market, relies on good faith intent to operate efficiently. Not an intent to be good, mind you, but an intent to faithfully fulfill the agreements into which one enters. If one enters into such agreements in bad faith, it results in either distorted transactions, the inefficiency of court proceedings, or both. The law is neither a cost efficient tool for guiding the free market nor a precisely targeted one.

    The goal of the free market, and its free hand, is to minimize the need for government interference by leveraging one inherent aspect of humanity; greed. That is a worthy objective because the law is known to be a blunt weapon, guided as it is by masses, influence peddlers, and politicians. Actors in bad faith can distort the legal system, and its use is costly even when it reaches the correct conclusion.

    The solution to the dilemma between bad faith actors and inefficient laws in the free market is to allow corporations which are directed by actors in bad faith to fail. Perfect information, losses incurred from treating with a company that fails, and the stigma of failing the stockholders takes care of the rest. It might be considered a brutal system in some regards, but it is widely held as being relatively efficient -- when it is allowed to correct itself.

    Enter the practice of not allowing banks to fail. When we engage in such inhibition of the free market, it loses its ability to correct actors in bad faith. Then we have a problem.

    So, there are at least two options; find a way to make it tolerable to let banks fail so the free market can correct bad faith actors, or find a way to prevent actors in bad faith from running banks. A third path is to allow actors in bad faith to take advantage of such a system, and suffer the consequences as we did last Fall. Yet another is to establish that there are no actors in bad faith running banks.

    I'm not suggesting which of those solutions is the right answer, nor that those are the only possible answers. All I'm trying to do is to establish a serious and complicated problem one must solve in developing and maintaining a healthy free market economy.

  • by dword ( 735428 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @02:26AM (#28952555)

    1) Correlation is not causation; this "abnormality" may be an effect of psychopathy
    2) Others may have this "abnormality" without manifesting any signs of psychopathy
    3) Yes, it would be interesting, but it would be even more interesting if you could fix it with a single pill that contains biologic organisms

  • by orzetto ( 545509 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @02:55AM (#28952751)

    Let's write a very inflammatory post. Suppose, as you did, that this deformity is a perfect predictor of sociopaths, and is a cause (not a consequence) of their behaviour; that is, suppose we discover that sociopaths are born. Suppose also that we can precisely determine whether a foetus has this deformity.

    What if governments mandate abortion of sociopathic foetuses? I am not really sure about the issue. On one hand, if a sociopath is born, we are pretty sure they are going to make people suffer or outright kill them. On the other hand we are removing people based on what they are, not what they have done.

    The disturbing thing is that such a discovery would finally give a rational basis for eugenics: instead of silly things like "being aryan" or "son of a rich family, therefore of the better part of society", we would actually have a rational criterion to trash new members of society.

    I am not sure at all here. Where do we draw the line? I almost wish they don't find this out, the moral questions are harder than the science.

  • Double standards? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:18AM (#28952901)

    When dogs go mad and bite kids, we don't investigate wether they had a bad upbringing, disease, or bad genes. They are put to sleep.
    When men do the same, society excuses them on these same grounds? I'm not saying that they should be executed, I'm just wondering why we make that big a distinction between sentient creatures.

  • by speedtux ( 1307149 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:39AM (#28953049)

    The problem is likely a lack of connections rather than too many connections.

    A fairly plausible view is that, in normal people, emotions inform the reasoning portions of the brain that some action makes them or others (empathy) feel sad, and that stops you from doing that action. If the connection is missing, they just don't care about the suffering of their victims or even what happens to them as a consequence.

    So, psychopathy is probably not the addition of something, but the lack of something, and that's probably difficult to put back with a knife.

  • by ShakaUVM ( 157947 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:05AM (#28953241) Homepage Journal

    # Convicted "psychopaths" have an identifiable abnormality in their brain.
    # "Normal" people don't have this abnormality.

    Actually, about 5% of people have the reduced neural ability to empathize with others. Most of them live normal lives because they buy into society, even if they don't personally feel other people are "real" or deserving of respect. A lot of these people can live very successful lives as businessmen or government workers.

    On the issue of correlation and causation - correlation is not causation, but what you're talking about is a causal link. Lack of empathy for others is a direct causative factor in sociopathy - it's part of the definition of it.

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

    by LKM ( 227954 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:25AM (#28953379) Homepage

    "The thinking side of the human mind considers the action, weighs the consequences, and then decides whether to follow through."

    This is probably but an illusion, a trick our brain plays on us. It is very likely that we make a decision first, and then rationalize that decision, cheating ourselves into thinking that we actually consciously weighted the consequences before making the decision. There are experiments which show that humans come to a decision long before their brain actually thinks they do.

  • Re:Free will (Score:2, Interesting)

    by JJJK ( 1029630 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:35AM (#28953443) Homepage
    Try to review what you think you know about "free will" and "punishment", I had some misconceptions about that too. There is no reason to believe that something like "free will" exists - it really is more of a religious thing but somehow many non-religious people cling to it. Of course I have the impression that all of my actions originate in me, but that's how consciousness works. Anyone who believes in free will is implying that his brain doesn't obey causality and that is one claim that can't just stand there, unproven... (And don't start with quantum mechanics at this point if you are not a physicist)
    What's important to understand is that something being deterministic doesn't mean it doesn't look random to someone who does not have all the data. So your thoughts will continue to look like free will, even if you know that it doesn't exist. Also something like "so now we have to let all the criminals go because they had no choice?" is a completely false implication. But there's the other misconception: law/justice should have nothing to do with punishment or revenge. It is supposed to be a solution to a problem. If you have a violent criminal then you'll want to put him away so he can't attack normal people. If someone stole something, you'll want to make him give it back and maybe add some incentive to not do it again (what you may call punishment - but it only works on rational-minded people). So what about psychopaths, child abusers and so on? You can 1) put them away (doesn't really solve the problem, just the symptoms), 2) kill them (barbaric, innocent people will die as well, also not really a solution), or when it's available 3) correct what's physically wrong with them.
    So if your justice system is based on revenge rather than problem-solving, then I hope these advances will affect it. As for society I guess the effect will be a lot of misunderstandings, fear and knee-jerk reactions. As usual.
  • by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @05:43AM (#28953985)

    Psychopathy and sociopathy are synonyms.

    In the dictionary definition of the terms, yes.
    However, Kurt Vonnegut came up with an interesting separation of concepts, as viewed through my personal understanding and a hefty dose of editorializing on my part, yet I will refrain from naming any names, I'll leave that parlor game to you:

    1. A psychopath cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Something is wrong with the brain.
    2. A sociopath can tell the difference between right and wrong, yet doesn't care. Something is wrong with the heart (to use a metaphor).

    With the disclaimer that there's a level of this in all of us, yet a critical threshold is reached when it becomes the constant that defines one's life, here's my general outline on Vonnegut's sociopath:

    - Onset unknown to me, probably an incident or environmental circumstance at a young age, creating behavioral patterns that calcified through repetition during formative years.
    - The behavioral pattern has been grooved in for so long, he/she may be unable to attain a healthy emotional equilibrium and probably never will.
    - Is driven to such a degree to achieve a goal, however wide (such as a dogma) or narrow (greed), that he/she takes advantage of others' good faith, exploiting then discarding allies, stepping stones all.
    - Goes through complex mental gymnastics to justify his/her actions, in the subjective narrative is both the hero and the victim. In a word, a narcissist.
    - Any true introspection may collapse a painstakingly built house of cards, so he/she learns nothing of value when confronted with defeat, achieves virtually no personal growth. Nor in victory, for that matter.
    - Is by and large a rational person. If placed under psychiatric evaluation, tests results would come back as relatively normal, 'sane'.

    The above profile probably fits the description of someone who's wronged you personally.
    Often tagged as leaders because of their high level of personal drive and absolute sense of certainty, the news are filled with the actions and pronouncements of these damaged individuals.
    Thriving as predators within the confines of respectable society, Vonnegut's sociopaths are surely the chief source of collateral collective human suffering since the dawn of time.

  • by Dr La ( 1342733 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @06:58AM (#28954483) Homepage

    Psychopathy and sociopathy are synonyms.

    No they are not, they are two different (albeit closely related) things.

    Robert Hare, an expert on psychopathy and the author of the PCL (Psychopathy Check List) that is (internationally) used by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose someone as a psychopath, makes a clear distinction between sociopath and psychopath.

    The most notable distinction is in short (in details, there is more) that "psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves". They are emotionally very shallow.

    Sociopaths on the other hand behave in a way that is regarded as anti-social and criminal by society, but not by the sub-culture to which the sociopath belongs. Morover, sociopaths can have a well-developed conscience and a normal capacity for empathy, guilt, and loyalty: "but their sense sense of right and wrong is based on the norms and expectations of their subculture or group".

  • Re:Test Bank CEOs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:50AM (#28955625)
    I know a guy who followed that principle in business. He would find a business partner and start a business (or sometimes the other way around). Then he would proceed to screw his business partner over and pocket the partner's money, in the process bankrupting the business. After 15 to 20 years of this he is completely bankrupt. He has been trying to start a new business for the last five years. He gets about 50% of the way into negotiations with his new business partners when they back out. Why does this happen?
    The potential business partners tell people about this new business opportunity they are developing. The people ask who they are going into business with. The partner tells them, the people say, "He is a no-good scumbag who will rip you off. Don't take my word for it. Talk to So-and-so and So-and-so." The partner talks to those two who tell him the same thing and refer him to more people. The partner tells the guy I know, "You know, I've had some set backs in my primary business and I just don't have the money to invest right now."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:58AM (#28955731)

    The 'scientists' involved in this are retards.

    Have they never heard of cause and effect?

    Has it never occurred to them that the psychopath's THOUGHT PROCESSES over decades, are what changed the brain structure?

  • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:13PM (#28959895)

    Pardon me sir, but you are chock full of crap.

    As the child of a corporate executive, I've met a lot of upper-level corporate officers, not one of which gave me a weird personality vibe, or a hint of social maladjustment. You don't reach that level of success by stepping on other people, being self aggrandizing, or unpleasant. Folks clue into weirdness pretty quick, and abnormality just doesn't equate with advancement. Empathy, sensitivity, personable behavior get you friends and admiration in any situation, corporate, governmental, academic or what have you. The rules don't change from one situation to another just because you've never met any of 'those' people.

    I have worked with quite a few people in lower management who scream at their employees, who don't work well with others, who try to carve out tiny fiefdoms in the warehouse, what have you, and they may last years at that position, but they don't make it any higher.

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:27PM (#28960083)

    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.

    I'm not so sure about this supposed link between poverty and violence. There's a lot of dirt-poor people who would never think to resort to violence (which unfortunately is part of why they stay poor and oppressed in some places), and there's been lots of rich people who have (such as the Max Factor heir who raped a lot of women). I think violence is probably much better linked to sociopathy, which occurs in all races and economic groups.

    Sometimes I joke to people, semi-seriously, that there's two kinds of sociopaths: 1) stupid sociopaths, who usually wind up in prison, and 2) smart sociopaths, who become lawyers, politicians, and CEOs.

    As for how this compares to race, I think if this were studied seriously, the only thing that'd be found is that certain races tend to be poor because of history, and children who grow up poor tend to not be as smart (since instead of getting a good education at a very young age to stimulate their mental growth, they're busy picking crops or whatever). Then, since there's far more less-intelligent people in those groups, the sociopaths among them tend to resort to violence far more often, rather than being devious liars and working their way into becoming President. So, in the USA, black people from the ghetto and white people from the trailer park tend to commit crimes and go to prison far more often, while blacks and whites and others who comes from middle-class households don't.

Syntactic sugar causes cancer of the semicolon. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982