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Transl Psychiatry. 2013 Oct 29;3:e319. doi: 10.1038/tp.2013.89.

Fear conditioning, persistence of disruptive behavior and psychopathic traits: an fMRI study.

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Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Children diagnosed with Disruptive Behavior Disorders (DBD), especially those with psychopathic traits, are at risk of developing persistent and severe antisocial behavior. Deficient fear conditioning may be a key mechanism underlying persistence, and has been associated with altered regional brain function in adult antisocial populations. In this study, we investigated the associations between the neural correlates of fear conditioning, persistence of childhood-onset DBD during adolescence and psychopathic traits. From a cohort of children arrested before the age of 12 years, participants who were diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder in previous waves (mean age of onset 6.5 years, s.d. 3.2) were reassessed at mean age 17.6 years (s.d. 1.4) and categorized as persistent (n=25) or desistent (n=25) DBD. Using the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory and functional magnetic resonance imaging during a fear conditioning task, these subgroups were compared with 26 matched healthy controls from the same cohort. Both persistent and desistent DBD subgroups were found to show higher activation in fear processing-related brain areas during fear conditioning compared with healthy controls. In addition, regression analyses revealed that impulsive-irresponsible and grandiose-manipulative psychopathic traits were associated with higher activation, whereas callous-unemotional psychopathic traits were related to lower activation in fear-related areas. Finally, the association between neural activation and DBD subgroup membership was mediated by impulsive-irresponsible psychopathic traits. These results provide evidence for heterogeneity in the neurobiological mechanisms underlying psychopathic traits and antisocial behavior and, as such, underscore the need to develop personalized interventions.

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