Importance: A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy. However, neural processes associated with empathic processing have not yet been directly examined in psychopathy, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain and distress.
Objective: To identify potential differences in patterns of neural activity in incarcerated individuals with psychopathy and incarcerated persons serving as controls during the perception of empathy-eliciting stimuli depicting other people experiencing pain.
Design: In a case-control study, brain activation patterns elicited by dynamic stimuli depicting individuals being harmed and facial expressions of pain were compared between incarcerated individuals with psychopathy and incarcerated controls.
Setting: Participants were scanned on the grounds of a correctional facility using the Mind Research Network's mobile 1.5-T magnetic resonance imaging system.
Participants: Eighty incarcerated men were classified according to scores on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) as high (27 men; PCL-R, ≥30), intermediate (28 men; PCL-R, 21-29), or low (25 men; PCL-R, ≤20) levels of psychopathy.
Main outcome measure: Neurohemodynamic response to empathy-eliciting dynamic scenarios revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Results: Participants in the psychopathy group exhibited significantly less activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and periaqueductal gray relative to controls but showed greater activation in the insula, which was positively correlated with scores on both PCL-R factors 1 and 2.
Conclusions and relevance: In response to pain and distress cues expressed by others, individuals with psychopathy exhibit deficits in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex regardless of stimulus type and display selective impairment in processing facial cues of distress in regions associated with cognitive mentalizing. A better understanding of the neural responses to empathy-eliciting stimuli in psychopathy is necessary to inform intervention programs.