The Psychopaths Among Us Have Faulty Wiring
Ted Bundy was one and so was John Wayne Gacy Jr., but far less infamous and dangerous psychopaths are among us, and experts believe a reason for their undesirable behaviors is faulty wiring in the brain. A Vanderbilt University study finds that a brain chemical and overly reactive reward system may be the key to psychopathic behavior.
Psychopathy was first definitively described by psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley in 1941, who explained that it consists of specific behaviors and personality traits. In a Scientific American article, psychopaths are described as superficially charming but also self-centered, undependable, dishonest, and individuals who will sometimes do irresponsible things just because they feel like it. They are basically without feelings of guilt, love, or empathy, and thus their relationships with others are casual.
Psychopaths typically blame others for their irresponsible actions and reckless behaviors and rarely learn from their mistakes. Although about 25 percent of prison inmates meet the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, research also indicates that “a sizable number” of psychopaths are part of the general population. Some experts have even suggested that they “may be overrepresented” in occupations such as politics and business.
The Vanderbilt Study
In the Vanderbilt study, the investigators used positron emission tomography (PET) imaging and functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) to examine the activity of a brain chemical called dopamine, which is involved in the brain’s reward system. Study volunteers were tested to identify their psychopathic characteristics, which can range from violent behavior to being manipulative, extremely self-centered, and aggressive.
The volunteers were first given amphetamine (speed) and a PET scan to examine how dopamine responded. Drug abuse is known to alter dopamine response, and psychopathy is strongly associated with drug abuse. The researchers found that nearly four times the amount of dopamine was released in response to the amphetamine in volunteers who had high levels of psychopathic characteristics. This supported the hypothesis that psychopathic traits are associated with faulty wiring in the dopamine reward system.
The volunteers were then told they would be given money if they completed a simple task and that their brains would be scanned with fMRI while they did the task. Individuals who had higher psychopathic characteristics showed more activity in the dopamine reward area of the brain while they were waiting for the money than did the other volunteers.
This finding suggests that “It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they’re after,” according to the study’s lead author, Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology.
Co-author David Zald, associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry, noted that “These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward—to the carrot—that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick.”
Myths about Psychopaths
The Scientific American article pointed out three myths about psychopaths. One, all psychopaths are violent. Although there are some Ted Bundys in the world, most psychopaths are not violent, and most violent people are not psychopaths.
Two, all psychopaths are psychotic. People who have psychotic disorders often lose touch with reality, while psychopaths know that what they are doing is wrong but they just don’t care. Therefore, Son of Sam David Berkowitz believed he was getting messages from a dog, which is a sign of psychosis, not psychopathy. Psychopaths are rarely psychotic.
Three, psychopaths cannot be treated successfully. Research by psychologist Jennifer Skeem of the University of California, Irvine, suggests that while difficult, psychological treatment can help psychopaths change their behaviors.
The findings of the Vanderbilt study reveal some faulty wiring in the reward system of people who have psychopathic traits, bringing scientists one step closer to a better understanding and hopefully a better way of dealing with the psychopaths that are among us. Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, noted that “The findings may help us find new ways to intervene before a personality trait becomes antisocial behavior.”
Scientific American, Dec. 2007