Brain scans reveal differences in brain structure in teenagers with severe antisocial behavior

March 31, 2011

Brain scans of aggressive and antisocial teenage boys with conduct disorder (CD) have revealed differences in the structure of the developing brain that could link to their behaviour problems.

The study, funded jointly by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, reveals that the brain differences were present regardless of the age of onset of the disorder, challenging the view that adolescence-onset CD is merely a consequence of imitating badly behaved peers.

CD is a psychiatric condition characterised by increased aggressive and antisocial behaviour. It can develop in childhood or in adolescence and affects around five out of every 100 teenagers in the UK. Those affected are at greater risk of developing further mental and physical health problems in adulthood.

Neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the size of particular regions in the brains of 65 teenage boys with CD compared with 27 teenage boys who did not display symptoms of behavioural disorder.

Their findings revealed that the amygdala and insula - regions of the brain that contribute to emotion perception, empathy and recognising when other people are in distress - were strikingly smaller in teenagers with antisocial behaviour. The changes were present in childhood-onset CD and in adolescence-onset CD, and the greater the severity of the behaviour problems, the greater the reduction in the volume of the insula.

Smaller volume of structures in the brain involved in emotional behaviour has been linked to childhood-onset CD, in which behavioural problems manifest early in life. However, adolescence-onset CD was previously thought to be caused solely by the imitation of badly behaved peers. The current findings cast doubt on this view and suggest a potential neurological basis for these serious and challenging conditions, whether they emerge in childhood or adolescence.

Ian Goodyer, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Graeme Fairchild, now based at the University of Southampton, led the research. Dr Fairchild explained: "Changes in grey matter volume in these areas of the brain could explain why teenagers with conduct disorder have difficulties in recognising emotions in others. Further studies are now needed to investigate whether these changes in brain structure are a cause or a consequence of the disorder."

Professor Goodyer added: 'We hope that our results will contribute to existing psychosocial strategies for detecting children at high risk for developing antisocial behaviour."

Dr Andy Calder from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, who co-led the research, commented: "Studies such as this are tremendously important in understanding the causes of conduct disorder. Only when we are confident that we understand why the disorder develops can we apply this knowledge to the further development and evaluation of treatments. The disorder has a devastating impact on families and communities, and at the moment, we have few effective treatments."

The group have previously shown that individuals with both forms of conduct disorder display abnormal patterns of brain activity, but this new work marks an important advance in understanding the biology of aggression and violence by showing that differences in brain structure are linked to the disorder.
-end-
The study will appear online today in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Wellcome Trust

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.