A Look Inside a Psychopath’s Brain

A team of researchers from Harvard University has released a new research revealing the inner-working of a psychopath’s brain. Previously studies have been performed to understand the behavior of psychopaths but the neural workings behind the behavior have remained a mystery.


The scientists from Harvard, led by associate professor of psychology, Joshua Buckholtz, studied the brain scans of 49 prisoners who tested as psychopaths on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. These scans allowed researchers to finally understand the mechanisms behind their behind their decision-making process. The findings were published in journal Neuron.

Specifically, the study focused on reward-anticipation, impulsive-antisocial factors, and the effects in the ventral striatum, the part of the brain known to be associated with impulse control symptoms.

To see how their brains functioned when given a choice between immediate and delayed rewards, the inmates had MRI brain scans while given the choice between getting a small amount of money now or a larger amount of money later. The scans showed striatal activity during this process.

“The more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response,” Prof. Buckholtz explains. “That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated – they may over represent the value of the immediate reward.”

Additionally, the scans revealed issues in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC, which normally regulates the ventral striatum. Normally this part of the brain is responsible for empathic responses, fear based learning, understanding consequences of future actions, and moral and social decision making.

The Joker: I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.


Without proper connections between the VMPFC and ventral striatum, the value of a particular reward may not be properly calculated leading to inappropriate choices. By mapping these areas in prisoners, Dr. Buckholtz and team found the connections between the two areas extremely weak.

“We found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy,” Prof. Buckholtz explains. “If you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.”

The connection is so strong between the condition of corticostriatal connectivity and criminal psychopathy that the scientists could predict an inmate’s conviction record based on the brain scans.

“The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers,” explains Buckholtz.


“If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.”

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