Is the brain to blame? Long-term antisocial behavior may be linked to differences in brain structure

Written by Heather Jones (Future Science Group)

Multi-institutional research observing the brain structures of individuals displaying antisocial behavior has discovered that there may be an association between specific differences in brain structure and persistent antisocial behavior. The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, provides the first robust evidence to suggest that there are indeed neuropsychological differences underlying long-term antisocial behavior.

Previous epidemiological studies have demonstrated that age of onset and duration of antisocial behavior can vary between individuals, with some displaying life-course-persistent antisocial behavior that begins in childhood and lasts into adulthood, while others desist as they mature into adulthood.

This observational study used neuroimaging to compare structural brain differences among individuals with either life-course-persistent or adolescent-only antisocial behavior and those without antisocial behavior.

The team studied MRI brain scans from 672 individuals aged 45 years. The participants were categorized based on reports from parents, carers and teachers, and self-reports of behavior issues between ages 7–26 years old. Of the 672 participants, 12% (80 people) had life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, 23% (151) had adolescent-only antisocial behavior and 66% (441) had no persistent disruptive behavior.

The researchers analyzed the brain scans to measure and compare the average cortical thickness and cortical surface area among the three groups.

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They observed smaller mean surface area and lower mean cortical thickness among individuals with life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, compared with those who showed no persistent antisocial behavior. Further, those with long-term antisocial behavior had a reduced surface area in 282 of 360 brain regions and a thinner cortex in 11 of 360 regions, most of which are known to be associated with antisocial behavior.

Intriguingly, the adolescence-limited group displayed no widespread differences in brain structure compared with either non-antisocial or life-course-persistent antisocial groups.

Christina Carlisi (University College London, UK) commented: “Our findings support the idea that, for the small proportion of individuals with life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, there may be differences in their brain structure that make it difficult for them to develop social skills that prevent them from engaging in antisocial behavior. These people could benefit from more support throughout their lives.”

However, it is worth acknowledging that individuals with adolescent-only antisocial behavior are generally capable of reform.

“Our findings support the need for different approaches for different offenders – however, we caution against brain imaging being used for screening, as the understanding of brain structure differences are not robust enough to be applied on an individual level,” commented Terrie Moffitt (Duke University, NC, USA). “Instead, we need to recognize that individual development can be one driver of serious repeat offending, but to also appreciate that this is not the case for all juvenile offenders.”

“It is unclear whether these brain differences are inherited and precede antisocial behavior, or whether they are the result of a lifetime of confounding risk factors and are therefore a consequence of a persistently antisocial lifestyle,” stated Essi Viding (University College London).

Further long-term studies involving multiple measurements of behavior, brain, genetics and environment are required in order to understand how life-course-persistent antisocial behavior develops.

Sources: Carlisi CO, Moffitt TE, Knodt AR et al. Associations between life-course-persistent antisocial behavior and brain structure in a population-representative longitudinal birth cohort. Lancet Psychiatry doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30002-X (2020) (Epub ahead of print);