Neural correlates of moral and non-moral emotion in female psychopathy

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (2014)
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Abstract

This study presents the first neuroimaging investigation of female psychopathy in an incarcerated population. Prior studies have found that male psychopathy is associated with reduced limbic and paralimbic activation when processing emotional stimuli and making moral judgments. The goal of this study was to investigate whether these findings extend to female psychopathy. During fMRI scanning, 157 incarcerated and 46 non-incarcerated female participants viewed unpleasant pictures, half which depicted moral transgressions, and neutral pictures. Participants rated each picture on moral transgression severity. Psychopathy was assessed using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) in all incarcerated participants. Non-incarcerated participants were included as a control group to derive brain regions of interest associated with viewing unpleasant vs. neutral pictures (emotion contrast), and unpleasant pictures depicting moral transgressions vs. unpleasant pictures without moral transgressions (moral contrast). Regression analyses in the incarcerated group examined the association between PCL-R scores and brain activation in the emotion and moral contrasts. Results of the emotion contrast revealed a negative correlation between PCL-R scores and activation in the right amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate. Results of the moral contrast revealed a negative correlation between PCL-R scores and activation in the right temporo-parietal junction. These results indicate that female psychopathy, like male psychopathy, is characterized by reduced limbic activation during emotion processing. In contrast, reduced temporo-parietal activation to moral transgressions has been less observed in male psychopathy. These results extend prior findings in male psychopathy to female psychopathy, and reveal aberrant neural responses to morally-salient stimuli that may be unique to female psychopathy.

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