Neuroscience is a fascinating field, yet one that I often find confusing to navigate. Interestingly, there has been some research in recent years attempting to find the coordinates of psychopathy within the brain. Interviews and articles about Dr. Kent Kiehl, in which he discusses his research using fMRI technology in an attempt to target the brain region involved in psychopathy, help break down the research into more manageable terminology.
Dr. Kiehl has identified a defect in the “the paralimbic system, a network of brain regions, stretching from the orbital frontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in processing emotion, inhibition, and attentional control” as the causes for psychopathy. Psychopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse, along with severe emotional detachment.
Despite the media sensationalism of murderers as psychopaths, most psychopaths are not murderers. In fact, most psychopaths function among us in society, using non-lethal techniques of manipulation and deceit to take advantage of others. They can be charming and successful, and unfortunately, often go undetected in their efforts to self-gratify at the expense of others. A 2006 PsychCentral news article further describes the broader definition of psychopathy as it applies to the general population.
Psychopathy is different from antisocial personality disorder, yet the diagnostic criteria that mental health professionals use does not do a good job at differentiating the two. As I heard many times in graduate school, “All psychopaths are antisocial, but not all antisocials are psychopaths.” This is mainly based on behavioral factors versus emotional factors. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder disobey authority by breaking rules, while psychopathy is based on affective traits (lack of empathy and remorse, grandiosity, etc.).
Dr. Kiehl states that he hopes his research will aid in the treatment of psychopathy. By identifying the parts of the brain that play a part in psychopathy, he believes that pharmaceutical companies will be able to develop drug therapy that target these regions of the brain, thereby reducing psychopathic tendencies.
Of course, there are many issues to think about with this research. Who will be targeted to receive these fMRIs? Right now, Dr. Kiehl’s research focuses on psychopaths in prison, but as discussed above, most psychopaths are among the general population. So, will we see a day in which people are scanned just to see if they are psychopaths as part of a routine check-up? This is unlikely, as the costs of running an fMRI are still too high to just begin randomly scanning people; plus, the ethical considerations are too murky.
If psychopathy has definitive brain coordinates, can it be classified as an official mental illness? Moreover, if so, can it be used to claim the insanity plea in court cases? These last two are harder to answer. Right now, psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder cannot be used in the insanity defense as primary diagnoses that contributed to the instant offense (crime committed). However, if there are brain abnormalities it seems likely that perpetrators and defense lawyers will attempt to use these fMRI results to support the plea of insanity.
Part II of The Brain of a Psychopath: Using fMRI Technology to Detect Brain Abnormalities will look at one such case in which a perpetrator attempted to use Dr. Kiehl’s research to reduce the penalty of his murder/rape charge.