Researchers say signs of psychopathy could be detected as early as childhood. The conclusion was drawn from a United Kingdom study where psychologists scanned the brains of children with conduct problems. When the children were shown images of someone in pain, regions of the brain associated with empathy remained inactive.

"Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain," said Essi Viding, a psychology professor at the University College London.

"It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny."

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which detects brain activities in response to an exercise, on the brains of 37 children to see whether their conduct problems changed after they saw an image of individuals with their feet or hands in agonizing pain.

Their brains were also compared to those of 18 children without behavioral problems but with similar intellectual capacities and socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The scans revealed that the children with conduct issues were more "callous," researchers found.

Their brain scans revealed little response from the bilateral anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and inferior frontal gyrus. The ACC is particularly responsible for regulating reasoning functions, including empathy, impulse control, and emotion. Past studies show that the bilateral anterior insula exhibits weak responses to emotional faces following alcohol consumption, while the inferior frontal gyrus holds what's called Broca's Area, which is normally damaged in non-fluent aphasiacs or individuals who struggle with getting words out and speak in short sentences.

"We know that children can be very responsive to interventions, and the challenge is to make those interventions even better, so that we can really help the children, their families, and their wider social environment," said Viding.

Previous studies have pointed out that adolescents with conduct problems have a tendency to engage in criminal activities, get divorced, become alcoholics, and also drop out of school without any qualifications more frequently than those with mild or no behavioral problems - a finding that goes against our belief in fictional legends like Hannibal Lecter, whose dexterous live-brain and plastic surgeries qualify him as both intellect and psychopath.

"Our findings very clearly point to the fact that not all children with conduct problems share the same vulnerabilities; some may have neurobiological vulnerability to psychopathy, while others do not," added Viding.

"This raises the possibility of tailoring existing interventions to suit the specific profile of atypical processing that characterizes a child with conduct problems."

The findings were published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.