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Transl Psychiatry. 2015 Aug 25;5:e625. doi: 10.1038/tp.2015.117.

Neural networks underlying implicit and explicit moral evaluations in psychopathy.

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Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
Department of Psychology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA.
Department of Neuroscience, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA.
Mind Research Network, Albuquerque, NM, USA.
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.


Psychopathy, characterized by symptoms of emotional detachment, reduced guilt and empathy and a callous disregard for the rights and welfare of others, is a strong risk factor for immoral behavior. Psychopathy is also marked by abnormal attention with downstream consequences on emotional processing. To examine the influence of task demands on moral evaluation in psychopathy, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure neural response and functional connectivity in 88 incarcerated male subjects (28 with Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) scores ⩾ 30) while they viewed dynamic visual stimuli depicting interpersonal harm and interpersonal assistance in two contexts, implicit and explicit. During the implicit task, high psychopathy was associated with reduced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and caudate when viewing harmful compared with helpful social interactions. Functional connectivity seeded in the right amygdala and right temporoparietal junction revealed decreased coupling with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), anterior insula, striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. In the explicit task, higher trait psychopathy predicted reduced signal change in ACC and amygdala, accompanied by decreased functional connectivity to temporal pole, insula and striatum, but increased connectivity with dorsal ACC. Psychopathy did not influence behavioral performance in either task, despite differences in neural activity and functional connectivity. These findings provide the first direct evidence that hemodynamic activity and neural coupling within the salience network are disrupted in psychopathy, and that the effects of psychopathy on moral evaluation are influenced by attentional demands.

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