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'Budding psychopaths' can be identified 'by how they react to people in pain'

A study has found that children who don’t react the same as other people when they see photos of people in pain may be at risk of developing psychopathy as adults.

Image: MRI scan of brain via Shutterstock

CHILDREN WHO UNDER-REACT to images of people in pain may be at risk of developing psychopathy as adults, new research has found.

A study of children with conduct problems found that key parts of their brain didn’t react as they typically would in most people when shown photographs of people in pain – which researchers say may serve as a neurobiological risk factor for psychopathy when the children grow up.

Around 5 per cent of children in the United Kingdom – where the study was carried out – have been diagnosed with conduct problems, but little is known about the underlying biology and the impact of environmental factors.

One of the psychologists involved in the study said that the findings are an indication 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,” said Professor Essi Viding, a psychologist at University College London.

Psychopathy is a disorder characterised by how sufferers are uncaring, irresponsible, insincere, ove- confident, selfish, often violent, and unable to plan for the future.

In the study, published in the latest edition of the journal Current Biology, researchers used MRIs to scan children’s brains and compared the responses of 37 children with conduct problems to those of 18 children without conduct problems, but of similar IQ, socioeconomic background and ethnicity.

The results showed the area of the brain responsible for empathy under-reacted in children with conduct problems when they were shown images of other people in pain.

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