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J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2012 Feb;40(2):211-23. doi: 10.1007/s10802-011-9557-8.

Verbal, facial and autonomic responses to empathy-eliciting film clips by disruptive male adolescents with high versus low callous-unemotional traits.

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Research Centre Adolescent Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, Utrecht University, Heidelberglaan 1, P.O. Box 80140, 3508 TC, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


This study examined empathy-related responding in male adolescents with disruptive behavior disorder (DBD), high or low on callous-unemotional (CU) traits. Facial electromyographic (EMG) and heart rate (HR) responses were monitored during exposure to empathy-inducing film clips portraying sadness, anger or happiness. Self-reports were assessed afterward. In agreement with expectations, DBD adolescents with high CU traits showed significantly lower levels of empathic sadness than healthy controls across all response systems. Between DBD subgroups significant differences emerged at the level of autonomic (not verbal or facial) reactions to sadness, with high CU respondents showing less HR change from baseline than low CU respondents. The study also examined basal patterns of autonomic function. Resting HR was not different between groups, but resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) was significantly lower in DBD adolescents with high CU traits compared to controls. Results support the notion that CU traits designate a distinct subgroup of DBD individuals.

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