Neural processing of moral violations among incarcerated adolescents with psychopathic traits



Carla L. Harenski, Keith A. Harenski, Kent A. Kiehl

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

October 2014



•We examine brain responses during moral judgment in youth with psychopathic traits.

•Conduct disorder symptoms negatively predicted anterior temporal responses.

•Callous–unemotional traits negatively predicted amygdala-moral rating associations.

•Brain dysfunction patterns during moral judgment vary by psychopathic trait type.


Neuroimaging studies have found that adult male psychopaths show reduced engagement of limbic and paralimbic circuitry while making moral judgments. The goal of this study was to investigate whether these findings extend to adolescent males with psychopathic traits. Functional MRI was used to record hemodynamic activity in 111 incarcerated male adolescents while they viewed unpleasant pictures that did or did not depict moral transgressions and rated each on “moral violation severity”. Adolescents were assessed for psychopathic traits using the Psychopathy Checklist-Youth Version (PCL-YV), Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia-Present and Lifetime Version (KSADS-PL) Conduct Disorder supplement, and Inventory of Callous and Unemotional Traits-Youth Version (ICU-Y). While viewing pictures depicting moral transgressions, CD scores were negatively correlated with hemodynamic responses in the anterior temporal cortex. Adolescents scoring low on the ICU-Y showed a positive correlation between right amygdala responses and severity of violation ratings; those with high ICU-Y scores showed a negative correlation. While viewing unpleasant pictures with and without moral transgressions, PCL-YV scores were negatively correlated with hemodynamic responses in the left amygdala. Overall, the results are consistent with those previously found in adult male psychopaths, but vary depending on the type of psychopathy assessment.









Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee