For boys at risk of psychopathy, laughter isn't so contagious

laughter
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For most people, laughter is highly contagious. It's nearly impossible to hear or see someone laughing and not feel the urge to join in. But researchers reporting in Current Biology on September 28 have new evidence to show that boys at risk of developing psychopathy when they become adults don't have that same urge.

Individuals at risk of show persistent disruptive behaviors alongside callous-unemotional traits. When asked in the study, boys fitting that description reported that they didn't want to join in with as much as their peers. Images of their brains also showed reduced response to the sound of laughter. Those differences were seen in areas that promote joining in with others and resonating with other people's emotions, not in auditory brain areas.

"Most studies have focused on how individuals with psychopathic traits process negative emotions and how their lack of response to them might explain their ability to aggress against other people," says senior author Essi Viding, of University College London. "This prior work is important, but it has not fully addressed why these individuals fail to bond with others. We wanted to investigate how boys at risk of developing psychopathy process emotions that promote , such as laughter."

Viding and colleagues recruited 62 boys aged 11 to 16 with disruptive behaviors with or without callous-unemotional traits and 30 normally behaved, matched controls. The groups were matched on ability, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, and handedness.

"It is not appropriate to label psychopaths," Viding explains. "Psychopathy is an adult personality disorder. However, we do know from longitudinal research that there are certain children who are at a higher risk for developing psychopathy, and we screened for those features that indicate that risk."

The researchers captured the children's brain activity using functional MRI while they listened to genuine laughter interleaved with posed laughter and crying sounds. The boys who took part were asked, on a scale of 1 to 7, "How much does hearing the sound make you feel like joining in and/or feeling the emotion?" and "How much does the sound reflect a genuinely felt emotion?"

Boys who showed coupled with high levels of callous-unemotional traits reported less desire to join in with laughter than did normally behaved children or those who were disruptive without showing callous-unemotional traits.

All the boys showed brain activity to genuine laughter in many parts of the brain, including the auditory cortex, where sounds are processed. However, some interesting differences also emerged, and these were particularly pronounced in boys whose disruptive behavior was coupled with callous-unemotional traits. They showed reduced in the anterior insula and supplementary motor area, brain regions that are thought to facilitate resonating with other people's emotions and joining in with their laughter. Boys who were disruptive but had low levels of callous-unemotional traits showed some differences too, but not as pronounced as the group with high levels of callous-unemotional traits.

Viding says it's hard to know whether the reduced response to laughter is a cause or a consequence of the boys' disruptive behaviors. But the findings should clearly motivate further study into how signals of social affiliation are processed in children at risk of developing psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder. She and her colleagues hope to explore related questions, including whether these children also respond differently to dynamically smiling faces, words of encouragement, or displays of love. They also want to learn at what age those differences arise.

The findings show that kids who are vulnerable to developing psychopathy don't experience the world quite like the rest of us, Viding says.

"Those social cues that automatically give us pleasure or alert us to someone's distress do not register in the same way for these children," she says. "That does not mean that these children are destined to become antisocial or dangerous; rather, these findings shed new light on why they often make different choices from their peers. We are only now beginning to develop an understanding of how the processes underlying prosocial behavior might differ in these children. Such understanding is essential if we are to improve current approaches to treatment for affected children and their families who need our help and support."


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More information: Current Biology, O'Nions and Lima et al.: "Reduced Laughter Contagion in Boys at Risk for Psychopathy" http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31102-8 , DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.08.062
Journal information: Current Biology

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Oct 01, 2017
""It is not appropriate to label children psychopaths," Viding explains. "Psychopathy is an adult personality disorder."

-while others disagree

"Dr. Hare has turned the idea around, after all his years digging into the background of psychopaths. He says:

"In some children the very failure to bond is a symptom of psychopathy. It is likely that these children lack the capacity to bond readily, and that their lack of attachment is largely the result, not the cause, of psychopathy. [Hare]

"In other words: they are born that way and you can't fix them.

"To many people, the idea of a child psychopath is almost unthinkable. But the fact is, true psychopaths are born, not made. Oh, indeed, there is the psychopath that is "made," but they are generally different from the born psychopath in a number of ways."

Oct 01, 2017
Perhaps the author of the article is more concerned with maintaining the ability to offer long term treatment whether or not it will ever work.

"One of the basic assumptions of psychotherapy is that the patient needs and wants help for distressing or painful psychological and emotional problems. The psychopath does not think that they have any psychological or emotional problems, and they see no reason to change their behavior to conform to standards with which they do not agree. They are well-satisfied with themselves..."

-Treatment only provides the psychopath the opportunity to hone his craft.

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