Impulsive-antisocial psychopathic traits linked to increased volume and functional connectivity within prefrontal cortex
BACKGROUND Psychopathy is characterized by a distinctive interpersonal style that combines callous-unemotional traits with inflexible and antisocial behavior. Traditional emotion-based perspectives link emotional impairment mostly to alterations in amygdala-ventromedial frontal circuits. However, these models alone cannot explain why individuals with psychopathy can regularly benefit from emotional information when placed on their focus of attention and why they are more resistant to interference from nonaffective contextual cues. The present study aimed to identify abnormal or distinctive functional links between and within emotional and cognitive brain systems in the psychopathic brain to characterize further the neural bases of psychopathy. METHODS High-resolution anatomic magnetic resonance imaging with a functional sequence acquired in the resting state was used to assess 22 subjects with psychopathy and 22 control subjects. Anatomic and functional connectivity alterations were investigated first using a whole-brain analysis. Brain regions showing overlapping anatomic and functional changes were examined further using seed-based functional connectivity mapping. RESULTS Subjects with psychopathy showed gray matter reduction involving prefrontal cortex, paralimbic, and limbic structures. Anatomic changes overlapped with areas showing increased degree of functional connectivity at the medial-dorsal frontal cortex. Subsequent functional seed-based connectivity mapping revealed a pattern of reduced functional connectivity of prefrontal areas with limbic-paralimbic structures and enhanced connectivity within the dorsal frontal lobe in subjects with psychopathy. CONCLUSIONS Our results suggest that a weakened link between emotional and cognitive domains in the psychopathic brain may combine with enhanced functional connections within frontal executive areas. The identified functional alterations are discussed in the context of potential contributors to the inflexible behavior displayed by individuals with psychopathy.