Brain Structural and Functional Anomalies in Psychopaths


Psychopathy is considered as a personality deficit marked with increased risk of antisocial behavioral and emotional insensitivity. Generally, psychopathy is associated with emotional insensitivity, deficiency in empathy, lack of remorse, and an inclination toward disinhibited behavior. Furthermore, psychopaths are generally known for their tendency to have antisocial personalities and a propensity for violent crime. The study of psychopathy is conducted to understand the structural differences in the mind of psychopaths. In addition, this study examines the evolution of differing structures and activity in the psychopath’s brain. This research paper aims to understand the structural and functional differences found in the brain of the psychopaths and highlight which anomalies may lead to their condition. Precisely, this paper investigates how dissimilar grey and white matter of the brain, amygdala shrinkage, and changes in the prefrontal cortex can impact an individual.


Brain Structural and Functional Anomalies in Psychopaths


Psychopathy is a term that has been used to explain the deviant behaviors of particular individuals throughout the world. This term has been used to define extreme states of irregular behavior involving heinous crimes. Psychopaths are generally associated with emotional insensitivity, lack of empathy, lack of remorse, and an inclination toward disinhibited and impulsive behavior. A psychopath commonly presents antisocial personality and an inclination toward violent crimes (Blair, 2013). Similarly, there’s an increase of scientific researches, focusing on brain imaging researches, linking brain abnormalities to the psychopathic tendencies or the antisocial behavioral patterns found in the individuals that eventually leads to psychopathy (Pujol, Harrison, Contreras-Rodriguez, & Cardoner, 2018). However, the neurophysiological basis of the psychopathic behaviors has been a complex area to exactly speculate what causes such behavior among the criminals or law offenders (Raine et, al., 2003). Therefore, researches have focused on understanding the interconnection of the brain structures that are involved in the regulation of impulsive behaviors, apathy, aggression and many other behavioral changes that are being observed in the behaviors of psychopaths (Harenski, Harenski, Shane, & Kiehl, (2010). Subsequently, the purpose of the study is to understand the physiological differences in the brains of psychopaths. This paper aims to investigate the significant structural and functional differences in the brain of psychopaths. The purpose of the study is to highlight any structural changes that occurs in any brain region, how their brain works, and how the structural changes lead to behavioral changes in psychopaths.

Brain Structural and Functional Anomalies in Psychopaths
Brain Structural and Functional Anomalies in Psychopaths


Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder, viewed as one of the most serious personality disorders that is present around the world. Psychopaths are distinguished from a set of behavioral patterns and lack of emotional sensitivity, empathy, inclination for disinhibited impulsive behavior combined with a general callousness, and lack of insight for the impact such behavior and impulsiveness (Cleckley, 1951). Psychopaths are more likely to make contact with criminal justice systems (Kiehl & Hoffman, 2010). Furthermore, psychopathy is mainly associated with criminal activities, committing violent crimes, remorseless and can easily act out while incarcerated (Carre, Hyde, Neumann, Viding & Hariri, 2013). However, the research claims that psychopathy is not a cultural or religion-specific disorder as many have highlighted it as a personality deficit. A vulnerable environment, childhood abuse, any other mental illness or certain brain damage or change in the brain structure can also be a potential leading factor to psychopathy (Sevecke, Lehmkuhl, & krischer, 2009). Psychopathy is not a part of the personality disorder clusters in diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM), although it has been recognized as a significant personality disorder academically as well as in criminal justice. Along with other behavioral symptoms, psychopaths demonstrate significant deficiencies in the affective skills, lack of empathy, lack of guilt or remorse, and impaired affective processing (De Brito, et al., 2009). Anderson & Kiehl (2016) in their research mentions a compression that within one year of release from jail, psychopaths are three times more likely to be reconvicted for another crime than the others criminals and are four times more likely to be more violently recidivate in the criminal activity.

Brain Structure in Psychopathy

The diversity in the range of emotional lacking and involvements in social and legal evaluations has encouraged researchers to focus on understanding the neurophysiology of the psychopath. Many researchers have emphasized that psychopaths generally obtain structural and functional abnormalities in the brain, mainly in the temporal and frontal cortical regions leading to the diversified behavioral and emotional patterns (Blair, 2010). The most linked brain structures to psychopathy are limbic structures of the medial temporal lobe, the hippocampus and amygdala. Also, changes have been noted in the specific portions of the frontal lobe such as ventromedial or orbitofrontal and front polar regions. Likewise, other brain structural variations have been connected to psychopathy such as the superior temporal cortex, cingulate cortex, striatum, and insula (Anderson & Kiehl, 2016).

Brain Volume

Brain imaging has advanced in providing a unique picture to explore structural and functional bases of normal brain or any other anomaly found in the brain. It highlights, how the brain structural differences can vary human basic behavior and how it may lead to criminal activities. In the past few decades, the researchers were more concerned in seeking an explanation of the neurobiological foundation of psychopathy and to discuss how such brain anomalies may account for psychopathic behaviors (Pujol, Harrison, Contreras-Rodriguez, & Cardoner, 2018). In regards to the whole brain volume researchers have not found any difference to the brain volume in psychopaths as compared to the normal human brain (Dolan, et al., 2002; Narayan, et al., 2007; Tiihonen, et al., 2008; Contreras, et al., 2015). However, Barkataki and colleagues (2006) conducted a research on fifty-six participants; out of which thirteen participants had antisocial personalities, thirteen participants were diagnosed with schizophrenia and had criminal record, fifteen participants were non-criminal schizophrenics and fifteen were healthy criminal individuals with no other mental disorder diagnoses. The findings of the research concluded that there is a significant brain volume reduction specifically in the temporal region found in the men with an antisocial personality disorder. This research have contributed to the fact that psychopaths may have varying brain volumes, as some might have a significant difference in volume of brain while others may not. Other research conducted on the brain volume has reported an association between the persistence of the cavum septum pellucidum and a higher score for psychopath (Raine, at al., 2010).

Grey and White Matter

Researchers have recorded that there was a certain change in the content of the grey matter and in the content of the white matter in brain of psychopath. Studies have focused on the delineation of the gray/white matter boundaries in the psychopaths’, voxel-based morphometry, and the cortical thickness variation is also noted in them (Pujol, Harrison, Contreras-Rodriguez, & Cardoner, 2018). The earlier imaging studies have predicted the reduction of the grey matter in the prefrontal lobe of the psychopathic brain (Raine, et al., 2000; Yang, et al., 2005). A research conducted on 26 offenders with the diagnoses of antisocial personality and their  results demonstrated tissue alteration in the brains of those offenders that were contributing to psychopathic tendencies (Gregory et al., 2012; Ly et al., 2012; Bertsch et al., 2013; Walters et al., 2015; Jiang et al., 2016). In respect to the white matter of the brain, studies indicate the complete opposite in regard to the volume of the matter. As, research studies have highlighted that there was a certain increase in the volume of the white matter while correlating with the psychopathy scores (Raine at al., 2003, Yang et al., 2005). Also, there was an increase in the basal ganglia along with the high content of the white matter (Pujara, Motzkin, Newman, Kiehl, & Koenigs, 2014)


Many changes have observed in the amygdala of the psychopaths in researches using fMRI’s. The Amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobe and has an integral role in the acquisition of the reinforcement learning, also, it is involved in the recognition of the emotionally salient information such as detecting the threat cues (Davis, & Whalen, 2001). Therefore, it is significant in detecting the threat, however, the amygdala was thought to be dysfunctional in the psychopaths and many previous fMRI researches has confirmed that psychopaths generally have a dysfunctional amygdala (Kiehl et al., 2005). Also, these tendencies have been associated with the abnormalities in the hemodynamic activity in the amygdala (Patrick, Bradley, & Lang, 1993). Similarly, the research conducted by Anderson and Kiehl (2014), explained that in terms of control, the psychopath exhibits very minimal control, depicting lower levels of amygdala activation when viewing the pictures having moral violations or fearful faces. This study proved that the brain portion responsible for the moral decisions and threat has lower activation in psychopaths, thus, they have higher tendencies to be involved in violent crimes and many have shown a sense of enjoyment to it (Harenski, Harenski, Shane, & Kiehl, 2010; Dolan, & Fullam, 2009). However, the same patterns were also highlighted in youth with unemotional traits and conduct disorder, explaining that such early behavioral disorders can lead to psychopathy in young adults as well (Finger et al., 2011).

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is an important part of the brain responsible for monitoring ongoing behaviors, estimating the consequences of the action and helps in incorporating emotions to the decision-making ability of individuals (Salzman & Fusi, 2010; Duncan & Owen, 2000). The researchers have contributed that the deficits in moral judgment and impulsivity are associated with the prefrontal cortex dysfunctionality in psychopaths (Anderson, Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 2000). Evidence also suggests that the damage in the ventromedial portion of the prefrontal cortex plays a significant role in the specific type of the utilitarian moral judgment. According to this moral judgment it is okay to scarify one life to save two demonstrating the non-empathic rationality present in the psychopath (Koenigs et al., 2007). Similarly, the recent researches on neuroimaging have investigated the association of the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex of the brain to psychopathic tendencies. In addition, many researchers conducting neuroimaging in the orbitofrontal cortex have described the significant reduction in the gray matter in the orbitofrontal cortex in psychopaths which they compared with the non-psychopath criminals (Boccardi et al., 2011). Also, these studies have highlighted that in most of the psychopath, the anterior frontopolar region of the prefrontal cortex is also reduced (De Oliveira-Souza et al., 2008).

Many contemporary techniques for the whole brain structural analysis have revealed that there are certain cortical distance mapping and radical distance mapping found in the psychopathic brain (Boccardi at al., 2011). Also, neuroimaging done on the whole brain have added additional information such as the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala variations. These researchers have found volume reduction in the anterior cingulate, parahippocampal gyrus and superior frontal gyrus (Cavanna, & Trimble, 2006). Subsequently, the imaging data highlights that the emotional processing blockage found in psychopath is a result of the abnormal functioning of the dorsal brain system. This alteration in the emotional processing network is involved in the moral judgement defaults in the psychopaths. Although, in normal individuals, this network processes the focus on the self by exposing individuals to be affected by the emotional recollections, such as good and bad memories stored in the temporal lobe (Pujol et al., 2012; Yoder et al., 2015).


Previous researches only have limited data on the people who were antisocial and have been diagnosed with psychopathy, thus, it was hard to understand how the brain structure and functional changes occurs while the psychopathic traits start to emerge in early developmental stages. Psychopathy, mostly, has been considered a consequence to antisocial personality disorder or a brain dysfunctionality however, there are few literatures that can regard how psychopathy itself may trigger those brain dysfunctionality and abrupt behavior. Similarly, the researchers have focused less on highlighting any potential source to track the psychopathic brain abnormalities in early years of life which may assist in better intervention so that the prognosis can be improved.


In conclusion, psychopathy has been related to the many brain structural changes such as, decrease in the grey matter and increase in the white matter has been noted in the previous researches. There are many changes in the different brain regions in the brain of the psychopath, such as lower activity in the amygdala leading to lower moral judgment in regards to criminal activity. Furthermore, researchers have highlighted that the emotional insensitivity and lack of emotional response in psychopaths are associated with a dysfunctionality of the prefrontal cortex, leading to impulsivity and lack of empathy toward others. Thus, these reductions and changes in the brain structures have been one of the major causes of the diverse and abnormal behaviors that psychopaths exhibit in society.

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