Capacity for upregulation of emotional processing in psychopathy: all you have to do is ask

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2018 Nov 8;13(11):1163-1176. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsy088.


Historically, psychopathic individuals have been described as suffering a chronic hyporesponsivity to negatively valent stimuli. However, while a wide body of empirical work indicates that the psychopath does not manifest normal reactivity to emotional stimuli, it does not similarly indicate that they cannot do so. To attempt to differentiate these alternatives, the current functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study evaluated the extent to which offenders with varying PCL-R scores could up- (or down-) regulate their neural response to negatively valent stimuli. Participants were asked to either watch negatively- and neutrally-valent images naturally (passive-processing), or to try to increase or decrease their emotional response to the images (instructed-processing). During passive processing, high-psychopathy offenders showed reduced activity compared to both low- and mid-psychopathic offenders through a majority of emotion-relevant regions. However, when participants were instructed to try to increase their emotional response all groups showing increased activity throughout relevant regions, including left insula, orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate/medial frontal cortex (ACC/mFC). Comparison of participants' subjective emotion ratings indicated that all groups showed symmetry between their neural/subjective emotion metrics, and the high-psychopathy group may have showed the greatest such symmetry. These findings suggest that psychopathic individuals may be capable of manifesting emotional reactivity to negatively valent stimuli, at least under certain conditions. Relevance for traditional and developing models of psychopathy is discussed in turn.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / diagnostic imaging
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Behavior, Addictive
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Criminals / psychology
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Up-Regulation
  • Wechsler Scales
  • Young Adult