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New research provides insight into the neurobiological mechanisms underlying certain psychopathic tendencies. The study, published in NeuroImage: Clinical, indicates that psychopathic personality traits such as callousness are associated with differences in connectivity between two important brain networks.

“We are broadly interested in understanding psychopathy, a harmful set of personality traits that is associated with severe aggression, criminality, and recidivism,” said study author Hailey Dotterer, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan.

“We’ve been curious about what motivates people to act the way they do, particularly when individuals act in negative ways — in harming others and ignoring societal norms and laws, which is essentially the core of psychopathy.”

“It is important to investigate the neural underpinnings of psychopathy because previous work suggests that the ways that disparate brain regions communicate with each other is related to emotion and attention, which are impaired in psychopathy,” Dotterer said.

Dotterer and her colleagues examined resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from 123 men who had completed an assessment of psychopathic personality traits. These traits were measured on a continuum and in the community, meaning they measured the relative amount of these traits in young adults, not in those in prisons or very high on psychopathy. That is, we all have relatively more or less of each of these traits and these can be mapped to brain functioning.

The researchers also used an algorithm known as Group Iterative Multiple Model Estimation to create person-specific connectivity maps for each participant.

“Psychopathy and psychopathic traits look different in different people. Some people are more superficially charming and manipulative, and other people are more impulsively aggressive. This means that it is important to consider individuals in research on psychopathy in order to ultimately inform personalized intervention approaches,” Dotterer told PsyPost.

“Traditionally, within neuroimaging studies, all participants in a group are essentially assumed to have similar brain networks; sometimes this is true, but when it’s not, results may not be accurate. Our approach doesn’t make this assumption” echoed study author Adriene Beltz, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.