Scientists say brain scans can be used to identify children with psychopathic tendencies. Certain areas of the brain related to empathy show a lower response in a psychopath's brain. Mapping these patterns in a brain scan could help identify children with the same tendencies.
"Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain. It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny," psychology Professor Essi Viding from University College London told NBCNews.
Empathy is the ability to relate to other people's feelings, including pain and sadness. Other studies have found that adult psychopaths tend to have little response when shown pictures of other people in pain.
The study was conducted by a group of researchers and published in the journal Current Biology. Researchers took a sample of 55 boys aged between 10 and 16 years. About 37 of these boys had been known to to behavioral or conduct issues such as harming others and being uncaring. Another 18 boys were not known to have these attitudes.
The children were then shown nearly 200 images of people either in a lot of pain, a little pain or in no pain at all. A functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging system (MRI) took brains scans of the children. The children with conduct issues showed a lower response to seeing the pictures of pain than did the children in the control group, according to the study.
However, scientists say the research is still a long way from conclusive and is not meant to single out children. They hope the study can identify those with such behavioral traits early and provide some sort of treatment therapy.
"Research clearly shows that not all children with conduct problems are alike. It may sound more politically correct not to acknowledge that, but ultimately that stance is not going to be helpful for the children and their families. In my own experience, parents of children with conduct problems and callous traits are often desperate for help," Viding added.