The size of two regions of the brain are smaller in antisocial teenage boys who have conduct disorder problems than in teenage boys without any behavior problems, a new study finds.
The brain differences found in the boys being studied were present regardless of what age the boys were when they developed the disorder, according to the study.
The findings challenge the view that conduct disorder is simply a result of imitating disobedient peers. Instead they suggest a neurological basis for extreme misconduct, researchers said.
Conduct disorder is a severe antisocial disorder that includes bullying, physical cruelty to people or animals, stealing, fighting, destruction of property, deceitfulness and excessive rule-breaking, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. It affects between 6 and 16 percent of boys and 2 to 9 percent of girls.
University of Cambridge researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure the size of particular regions in the brains of 65 teenage boys with conduct disorder and 27 teenage boys without symptoms of the behavioral disorder.
The scans revealed that the amygdala and insula — brain regions that contribute to emotion perception, empathy and recognizing when other people are in distress — were smaller in the teenagers with the antisocial behavior, according to the researchers. The greater the severity of behavior problems, the greater the reduction in the volume of the insula region, the study found.
The changes in brain region size were present in boys’ brains regardless of whether they had developed conduct disorder in childhood or adolescence, the study said.
“Changes in gray matter volume in these areas of the brain could explain why teenagers with conduct disorder have difficulties in recognizing emotions in others,” Graeme Fairchild, now a lecturer at the University of Southampton in England said in a statement.
The study was published today (March 31) in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Pass it on: There are structural differences in the brains of boys with conduct disorder and boys without any behavioral problems.
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