The study of empathy at a neurological level has provided insight into the component processes that enable us to share each other's emotions, resonate with a person in need, and act in ways that benefit the other before the self. Individuals who act with blatant disregard for the well-being of others and behave as if they do not experience empathy are often characterized as psychopaths. Compared to other psychiatric disorders, little is known about the neurocognitive systems implicated in psychopathy, and there are currently no effective treatment protocols. Attention to the disorder is urgent: psychopathic criminals tend to be recidivistic and violent offenders, and the cost of their crimes to society reaches hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Determination of the nature of empathic deficits in psychopathic individuals will further guide intervention and treatment strategies in the clinical arena. The goal of this project is to explore the neurological mechanisms that underpin the function and dysfunction of the component processes of empathy and implicit emotion processing in 120 incarcerated offenders stratified into low, medium, and high scorers on Hare's Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R, 1991), along with 40 matched controls from the community. This project utilizes a mobile MRI system, which is brought to prisons to collect functional magnetic resonance imaging, structural and diffusion tensor imaging, autonomic nervous system measurements, and behavioral responses on-site at the correctional facilities. The tasks collected in the scanner will target the subjects'perception and interpretation of pain and emotions in others. Preliminary pilot data indicate that current theories, such as those hypothesizing chronic hypofunctioning of the amygdala or other limbic structures, may not be an accurate representation of actual deficits in psychopathy, since different patterns of activation, including amygdala and striatum activity, are so far seen in the psychopath group in response to our emotional stimuli. As well as shedding light onto the nature of empathy dysfunction within psychopathy, this project will provide a direct assessment for a model of empathy that relies on distributed information processing networks. A better knowledge of the mechanisms involved in empathy offers important implications for the examination and understanding of individuals with antisocial behavioral disorders, but complementarily, understanding which neural components of empathy are still intact and which differ in populations that are defined by patterns of counter-empathic behavior will help crystallize the understanding of the component processes which contribute to empathic behaviors in healthy adults. This translational project bridges social psychology and cognitive and affective neuroscience to bring to light the neural underpinnings of a costly societal problem at a systems and behavioral level. The findings of this research will expand our knowledge on the processes and mechanisms involved in the experience, expression, and regulation of emotion.

Public Health Relevance

Psychopathy is a personality disorder with considerable negative impact on the welfare of society at large. Recently, interest in understanding and treating the disorder has surged, but without proper access and methods to ascertain the underlying biological and psychological differences behind psychopathy, treatments and interventions may be poorly informed. The proposed translational project investigates the component processes underlying empathy (a core feature of healthy interpersonal sensitivity that is deficient in psychopathy) and implicit emotion processing to examine these core faculties in incarcerated psychopaths, using magnetic resonance imaging. It marks the beginning of a systematic and empirical course of study designed to pinpoint the nature of empathic deficits in psychopathy such that directed targets for intervention and therapy can be effectively designed and implemented.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-L (05))
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Meinecke, Douglas L
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University of Chicago
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Cowell, Jason M; Decety, Jean (2015) The neuroscience of implicit moral evaluation and its relation to generosity in early childhood. Curr Biol 25:93-7
Yoder, Keith J; Decety, Jean (2014) Spatiotemporal neural dynamics of moral judgment: a high-density ERP study. Neuropsychologia 60:39-45
Decety, Jean; Cowell, Jason M (2014) Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior? Perspect Psychol Sci 9:525-37
Yoder, Keith J; Decety, Jean (2014) The Good, the bad, and the just: justice sensitivity predicts neural response during moral evaluation of actions performed by others. J Neurosci 34:4161-6
Decety, Jean; Skelly, Laurie; Yoder, Keith J et al. (2014) Neural processing of dynamic emotional facial expressions in psychopaths. Soc Neurosci 9:36-49
Decety, Jean; Skelly, Laurie R; Kiehl, Kent A (2013) Brain response to empathy-eliciting scenarios involving pain in incarcerated individuals with psychopathy. JAMA Psychiatry 70:638-45
Decety, Jean; Chen, Chenyi; Harenski, Carla et al. (2013) An fMRI study of affective perspective taking in individuals with psychopathy: imagining another in pain does not evoke empathy. Front Hum Neurosci 7:489