Even though all of those who suffer from psychopathy are known to be unable to process human emotions normally, researchers have found the way in which psychopaths process moral human emotion varies among the sexes. Publishing their findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers used neuroimaging to determine whether moral judgment caused the same level of brain inactivity in male and female psychopaths.

Psychopathy, characterized by an impulsive, often cruel nature in its sufferers has widely been analyzed in males while little research has been done in females. This is most likely due to the fact that the ratio of male to female psychopaths is 20:1. Although excluding women, previous studies have shed some light on the nature of psychopathy in the brain, finding that the disorder often causes reduced responses to emotional stimuli and reduced activity in the areas of the brain that dictate emotion.

When looking at these individuals’ brain activity, researchers have often found that male psychopaths have less response in their amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, both areas of the brain that aid in moral judgment. Until recently, how these areas operate in female psychopaths was relatively unknown.

A team of researchers from The MIND Research Network in Albuquerque, led by Carla Harenski sought to bridge this gap. Using fMRI imaging, researchers compared brain activity in 157 reported female psychopaths being held in a medium-security correctional facility to 46 individuals without the disorder. Along with rating individuals based on the severity of their psychopathy, researchers looked at brain activity while participants viewed emotional, moral or non-emotional images. Examples of these images included a drunk driver (immoral), an angry driver (emotional) and a normal driver (non-emotional). Researchers found that, similarly to males, female psychopaths had less activity in the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex. However, females showed uniquely less activity in their right temporoparietal junction, an area associated with justice and the attribution of intentions.

“These results extend prior findings regarding emotion processing in adult male psychopathy to female psychopathy, and reveal aberrant neural responses to morally-salient stimuli that may be unique to female psychopathy,” said the researchers.

What it means: female psychopaths may process moral judgment differently than both those without the disorder, and their male counterparts. Researchers hope their findings will lead to future investigation on a previously unexplored topic. They also hope that their study will help them to better understand where psychopathy originates, and how to better treat it.

Source: Harenski C, Edwards B, Kiehl K, et al. Neural correlates of moral and non-moral emotion in female psychopathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014.