Arson, cruelty to animals, and bedwetting are behavioral characteristics typically associated with psychopaths, but now scientists are looking at the visible attributes of psychopathic criminals’ brain networks.

Researchers from the Donders Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at Radboudumc just published a study examining if the way a psychopath's brain works is visibly different than that of a non-psychopath. They also looked at the differences between the brains of criminal and non-criminal psychopaths. They found greater activity in the reward centers of psychopaths' brains, and a lack of self-control, which raises some interesting questions, such as whether brain scans might someday be allowed in courtrooms.

"We carried out tests on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals, and 20 non-criminal individuals, half of whom had a high score on the psychopathy scale. The participants performed tests while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner. We saw that the reward centre in the brains of people with many psychopathic traits (both criminal and non-criminal) were more strongly activated than those in people without psychopathic traits. It has already been proved that the brains of non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits are triggered by the expectation of reward. This research shows that this is also the case for criminal individuals with psychopathic traits,” Dirk Geurts, researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Radboudumc, said.

Geurts and his team also discovered that the tendency to commit an offense arises from both a strong focus on reward and a lack of self-control. Additionally, antisocial and egocentric behavior is a bigger psychopathic indicator than lack of empathy and emotional involvement.

These scientific findings bring up many questions about the future and even criminal proceedings.

"For the time being, these findings are only important at group level as they concern variations within the range of normal results. Of course if we can refine these and other types of examinations, we may well see brain scans being used in forensic psychiatric examinations of diminished responsibility in the future,” Robbert-Jan Verkes, Professor of Psychiatry and coordinator of the research, said.

Source: Dirk E.M. Geurts et al. Neural connectivity during reward expectation dissociates psychopathic criminals from non-criminal individuals with high impulsive/antisocial psychopathic traits, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2016.