(provided by candidate): Psychopathy is a menacing syndrome of antisocial personality characteristics recognized as the single best predictor of violent criminal recidivism. There are a small number of theories purporting to explain why psychopaths are so inclined toward violent, antisocial behavior. One theory with particularly strong support maintains that psychopathy can be defined in part by an impaired ability to learn from punishment. In technical terms, they present impairments in passive avoidance learning (PAL). It is believed that this punishment insensitivity could explain why criminal psychopaths are so unabashedly undeterred by criminal sanctions. Despite this rich body of knowledge about its behavioral manifestations, effective treatments for psychopathy are gravely lacking. When various treatment programs for a syndrome consistently fail, we can often glean insight from a deeper investigation into the relationship between the syndrome's behavioral manifestations and their biological causes. For the first time, we now know about the neural mechanisms of PAL in healthy adults, owing to recent research by Kosson and colleagues (2006). However, whether PAL impairments in psychopaths can be accounted for by decreased activation in these regions, or by some other mechanism, is unknown. This is partly because of technical constraints such as insufficient access to scan large numbers of inmates. We now have the ability to examine these mechanisms in inmate populations efficiently. By exploiting the latest advances in neuroimaging technology and data analysis, we can precisely observe the activation of specific regions within the brain while participants engage in cognitive-behavioral tasks. By determining which neural regions are recruited for PAL, we can also better understand whether these PAL impairments reflect deficits in motivational, affective, or attentional processes. Once we identify the neural underpinnings of psychopathic PAL deficits, we will have a richer framework with which to understand and validate the relative effectiveness of different treatments designed to improve avoidance learning in psychopaths. Such treatments could in turn reduce recidivism by improving these learning deficits.
Psychopathy is a menacing mental disorder recognized as the single best predictor of violent criminal recidivism. Because there are no known satisfactory treatments for psychopathy, a deeper understanding of its biological basis is needed. By investigating the neural mechanisms underlying psychopaths'relative inability to learn from punishment, the present proposal aims to contribute to the theoretical understanding prerequisite for the treatment of psychopathy.
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