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BNA Interview Series: The Neuroscience of Psychopathy With Essi Viding

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At the British Neuroscience Association (BNA)’s Festival of Neuroscience in April 2019, we were lucky enough to sit down with some influential neuroscientists to discuss their work. We’ve assembled these transcripts into our BNA Interview Series. Read Essi Viding’s interview below.

Essi Viding is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at University College London in the Faculty of Brain Sciences, where she co-directs the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit. She studies persistent antisocial behavior and development disorders using cognitive experimental measures, brain imaging and genotyping. Her plenary at BNA 2019 was entitled: "Why do some people become psychopaths?"

Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): What are some of the developmental pathways that lead to psychopathic behavior?

Essi Viding (EV): We don’t, at the moment, fully understand the whole developmental pathway from possible genetic risk all the way to adult psychopathy. We have some hints as to what might be going on.  What we think happens is that some children are genetically predisposed to react less to other peoples’ emotions, both distress emotions and also other peoples’ happiness and things that we typically look at to affiliate ourselves with other people. This probably generates a dynamic between the child and the care giver and the care giver may also have some of the difficulties that the child has, which means that the child has an atypical socialization experience.  So the kind of things that we use to socialize children, such as empathy induction, sanctions and affiliative cues don’t seem to have the same effect on children who are at risk of developing psychopathy which means that it’s much more difficult for us to encourage prosocial behavior and curb antisocial behavior in these individuals.

RM: What are the neurocognitive consequences of childhood maltreatment and how significantly does this contribute to persistent antisocial behavior?

EV: Our research and research from other groups suggest that children who grow up in family environments that are characterized by violence have atypical reactivity to threat stimuli, so they have exaggerated neural responses to threat and this is something that is very different from what we see in individuals with psychopathy. So this may be another route for antisocial behavior risk. You grow up in an environment that is characterized by threat, you are highly attuned to that environment which means that you see threat even in ambiguous situations and that means that you may react aggressively to other people, even when they are not meaning to be threatening to you.  So that might be one route for increasing risk of aggressive and antisocial behavior and if an individual grows up in an unpredictable environment they may persist with this sort of pattern into adulthood and that’s one developmental trajectory we think applies to persistent antisocial behavior, a very different one from what we see for psychopathy.  

RM: Do biomarkers exist for any aspects of antisocial behavior?

EV:  Not at the moment, no. So, there are some large scale studies in prisons by my colleague Kent Kiehl in the United States that suggests that certain brain structural markers may add to the prediction of antisocial behavior over and above some of the traditional predictors such as history of violence, but they only really add a small increase into the prediction.  That makes sense if you think about having somebody who has a history of antisocial behavior, that history has within it all of the biomarkers if you like, because the biomarker is predisposed to the behavior.  So once you take the history of behavior, any biomarker information is unlikely to add very much to the prediction of antisocial behavior.  If we think about children who haven’t yet committed crimes, the chances are that those biomarkers are too imprecise a predictor to be reliable at that point in life.  So my thinking is that this biomarker information might be most helpful in trying to think about how you intervene with people and what might be most suitable in the form of intervention rather that in terms of actually predicting future behavior.

Essi Viding was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie  Science Writer for Technology Networks. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.