THURSDAY, May 2, 2013 — Kids with disciplinary issues often fail to show empathy for other people, and the brain's reaction to negative images may reflect that, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

When shown images of people in pain, the brains of kids with conduct problems reacted much differently than the brains of kids without such problems — something researchers say could be an early predictor of who will become psychopaths later in life.

Researchers from University College London used an fMRI to examine the brain's response to images of people in pain in 37 kids with conduct problems, which includes aggression, theft, cruelty to others, and ADHD. Those brain reactions were then compared to the brain reactions of 18 healthy controls who viewed similar images. They found that the brains of kids with conduct problems showed reduced response in the areas of the brain that correspond to empathy. The subjects were an average of 14 years old.

“Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain,” Essi Viding, PhD, study author and researcher with University College London, said in a statement.

Early intervention, such as behavioral therapy and counseling, could help kids with conduct problems avoid serious legal, emotional and behavioral problems down the road, she added.

“We know that children can be very responsive to interventions,” Viding said, “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.”

While early intervention won't completely cure problem children, it can dramatically improve their lives, said Donald W. Black, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, in an op-ed for Everyday Health.

“While not a panacea, treatments that help the child learn new patterns of behavior, and teach mothers and fathers how to more effectively parent such children offer the best hope,” he said. Those treatments, which may also include pet ownership, can help kids develop compassion and nurturing skills.

If early intervention is not performed, children with conduct disorders may get worse, and eventually become full-blown psychopaths, researchers said.

A separate study, published in April in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that adult psychopaths, all of whom were in prison, responded in a similar manner to images of pain. Researchers say that this lack of empathy prevents psychopaths from caring about about right and wrong.

“Moral behavior is primarily guided by spontaneous, effortless emotional responses that operate automatically and unconsciously,” Jean Decety, PhD, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, told Everyday Health. “In the absence of appropriate emotional responding, psychopaths lack motivation to behave morally; their social knowledge is rhetorical and has little influence on behavior.”

But while many psychopaths start out with conduct disorders, Viding said, simply having the disorder isn’t a life sentence, especially when help is available to those who need it.

“It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability,” she said in a statement, “rather than biological destiny.”

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