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Biol Psychiatry. 2003 Jul 15;54(2):152-62.

Abnormalities in emotion processing within cortical and subcortical regions in criminal psychopaths: evidence from a functional magnetic resonance imaging study using pictures with emotional content.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany.



Neurobiology of psychopathy is important for our understanding of current neuropsychiatric questions. Despite a growing interest in biological research in psychopathy, its neural underpinning remains obscure.


We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the influence of affective contents on brain activation in psychopaths. Series containing positive and negative pictures from the International Affective Picture System were shown to six male psychopaths and six male control subjects while 100 whole-brain echo-planar-imaging measurements were acquired. Differences in brain activation were evaluated using BrainVoyager software 4.6.


In psychopaths, increased activation through negative contents was found right-sided in prefrontal regions and amygdala. Activation was reduced right-sided in the subgenual cingulate and the temporal gyrus, and left-sided in the dorsal cingulate and the parahippocampal gyrus. Increased activation through positive contents was found left-sided in the orbitofrontal regions. Activation was reduced in right medial frontal and medial temporal regions.


These findings underline the hypotheses that psychopathy is neurobiologically reflected by dysregulation and disturbed functional connectivity of emotion-related brain regions. These findings may be interpreted within a framework including prefrontal regions that provide top-down control to and regulate bottom-up signals from limbic areas. Because of the small sample size, the results of this study have to be regarded as preliminary.

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