New neurobiological research methods could be used to identify psychopaths before they hit puberty, which could lead to potential serial killers receiving treatment at a young age.
Psycho picture from Shutterstock
Researchers in the UK have discovered patterns of reduced brain activity in children diagnosed with conduct problems (CP) while viewing photos of others in pain. The children's brains were scanned via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they looked at images of hands and feet in painful situations. The non-reactive regions of the brain, which are known to play a role in empathy, are thought to be a neurobiological risk factor for later adult psychopathy.
We conclude that children with CP have atypical neural responses to others’ pain. The negative association between callous traits and AI/ACC response could reflect an early neurobiological marker indexing risk for empathic deficits seen in adult psychopathy.
According to the report, these early warning signs could be used to treat children more effectively and set them on the right path before they reach adulthood. (Currently, psychotic risk factors are mainly measured via incidents of physical aggression, cruelty to others and a lack of empathy, but little is known about the underlying biology.)
"Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain," said head researcher Essi Viding from the University College London.
"It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny. We know that children can be very responsive to interventions, and the challenge is to make those interventions even better, so that we can really help the children, their families, and their wider social environment."
The report also discovered lower brain activation in the children that were deemed to be the most callous, which could allow interventions to be tailored to suit the specific profile of each child.
As fMRI screening methodology is refined and perfected, it's not inconceivable that scientists will one day be able to accurately predict the likelihood of a child developing into a serial killer at a granular level. If these psychological defects are incurable, could we end up incarcerating high-risk children before they actually commit any crimes? Minority Report might not be that far-fetched after all.