According to University of Birmingham research new, behaviour problems in young people with severe antisocial behaviors — also known as conduct disorder — could result from differences in brain wiring that connects the brain’s emotional centres together.
Conduct disorder is a condition that affects approximately 1 in 20 children or teenagers. It is one of the most common reasons to refer to child and adolescent psychological health services. Conduct disorder is characterized by aggressive or antisocial behaviours, such as vandalism and weapon use. It is often also associated with other disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.
Although the exact causes of conduct disorder are unknown, scientists at the University’s Centre for Human Brain Health (Imperial for Mental Health) have discovered that young people with the condition have distinct differences in white matter pathways (the brain’s structural wiring).
The brain structure of children with conduct disorder was compared to that of children with normal development and no severe antisocial behaviour. Nearly 300 children between 9 and 18 years old were included in the study, with equal numbers of girls and boys.
Each volunteer had a brain scan performed using a magnetic resonance imaging scanner (MRI) to examine differences in white matter fiber tracts. These fibre tracts carry signals between different areas of a person’s brain.
One of the most significant differences found by the team was in the corpus Callosum. This is the largest white matter fibre tract in brain and connects both hemispheres together. The MRI results indicated that there was less branching between these fibres. Therefore, the connections between left and right brain sides were less efficient in young people suffering from conduct disorder. The researchers found that both boys and girls with conduct disorders had the same structural abnormalities in this pathway.
The brain structure changes were also linked to antisocial behaviours like aggression or personality traits such as guilt or empathy. They discovered that differences in the corpus Callosum were related to callous behaviours such as deficiency in empathy and disregard for others’ feelings.
It is important to research how brain wiring is different in conduct disorder patients. This will help clinicians diagnose the condition more accurately, and guide future interventions.
Dr Jack Rogers is co-lead author of the study. He said, “The brain differences we see in young people with conduct disorder seem to be unique in so far as they are different than the white matter changes that were reported in other childhood conditions like autism or ADHD.”
“Additionally, we found that white matter differences in youths with conduct disorders were explained by callous traits such as guilt and reduced empathy. This suggests that these traits should be considered when examining brain differences in young people with conduct disorder.”
Dr Stephane De Brito, co-lead author, said: “It can sometimes be really difficult to obtain a diagnosis for children who have conduct disorder — partly due to it being often obscured or because it’s often not seen as a real disorder. Our understanding of the brain’s structural differences will allow us to make more accurate diagnoses in the future. We can also develop and test interventions that can be used to help children during critical periods of brain development.
Dr Graeme Fairchild is a Reader at the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology and a collaborator in the project. He said that this was the first large-scale study to examine white-matter pathways in brains of boys and girls with conduct disorder. These results demonstrate that there is a reliable difference in the connectivity of these pathways. They also differ from those in other mental illnesses like depression. It will be important that we study whether white matter changes in conduct disorder can be caused by brain development and whether psychological interventions are possible to modify these brain changes.
Materials provided by University of Birmingham. Note: Content can be edited for style or length.