The neural signatures of distinct psychopathic traits

Soc Neurosci. 2013;8(2):122-35. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2012.703623. Epub 2012 Jul 9.


Recent studies suggest that psychopathy may be associated with dysfunction in the neural circuitry supporting both threat- and reward-related processes. However, these studies have involved small samples and often focused on extreme groups. Thus, it is unclear to what extent current findings may generalize to psychopathic traits in the general population. Furthermore, no studies have systematically and simultaneously assessed associations between distinct psychopathy facets and both threat- and reward-related brain function in the same sample of participants. Here, we examined the relationship between threat-related amygdala reactivity and reward-related ventral striatum (VS) reactivity and variation in four facets of self-reported psychopathy in a sample of 200 young adults. Path models indicated that amygdala reactivity to fearful facial expressions is negatively associated with the interpersonal facet of psychopathy, whereas amygdala reactivity to angry facial expressions is positively associated with the lifestyle facet. Furthermore, these models revealed that differential VS reactivity to positive versus negative feedback is negatively associated with the lifestyle facet. There was suggestive evidence for gender-specific patterns of association between brain function and psychopathy facets. Our findings are the first to document differential associations between both threat- and reward-related neural processes and distinct facets of psychopathy and thus provide a more comprehensive picture of the pattern of neural vulnerabilities that may predispose to maladaptive outcomes associated with psychopathy.

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / pathology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Impulsive Behavior / pathology
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neostriatum / pathology
  • Nervous System / pathology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Reward
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen