Study reveals lifelong antisocial people have smaller brains than others

This includes stealing, aggression and violence, bullying, and lying.

An international team of neuroscientists conducted a study on the brains of bullies, and they found the brains of lifelong antisocial people (exhibiting life-course-persistent antisocial behavior) to be physically smaller than other brains. The study was published in the journal, The Lancet. MRI brain scans were used by the neuroscientists to come to this grim conclusion. The scans also showed that there are differences in the brain structure of those who exhibit persistent antisocial behavior.

Dr. Christina Carlisi, lead author on the study, says, “Our findings support the idea that, for the small proportion of individuals with life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, there may be differences in their brain structure that make it difficult for them to develop social skills that prevent them from engaging in antisocial behavior. These people could benefit from more support throughout their lives.”

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The study was conducted based on 672 participants, of which 80 were categorized to exhibit lifelong antisocial behavior. This includes activities such as “stealing, aggression and violence, bullying, lying, or repeated failure to take care of work or school responsibilities.” 151 of the participants were found to exhibit adolescence-limited antisocial behavior, while 441 were found to have low antisocial behavior.

Dr. Carlisi says, “Most people who exhibit antisocial behavior primarily do so only in adolescence, likely as a result of navigating socially difficult years, and these individuals do not display structural brain differences. It is also these individuals who are generally capable of reform and go on to become valuable members of society.”

The age of all the participants was 45 when the MRI scans were taken. The scans were taken from the participants in the Dunedin Study. The below image (A), taken from the published study, shows that the parcel-wise surface area is significantly smaller in the lifelong antisocial behavior group compared to the low antisocial behavior group.

Analyses showed widely distributed patterns of smaller surface area across 282 of 360 parcels in participants with life-course-persistent antisocial behavior than in those in the low group (figure 1A). | Image: Associations between life-course-persistent antisocial behaviour and brain structure in a population-representative longitudinal birth cohort.

The second figure (B), also taken from the published study, shows that the parcel-wise surface area is significantly smaller in the lifelong antisocial behavior group compared to the adolescence-limited antisocial behavior group.

Comparisons of parcel-wise surface area between the life-course-persistent and adolescence-limited antisocial behavior groups showed that the life-course-persistent group had smaller surface area in 125 parcels. | Image: Associations between life-course-persistent antisocial behaviour and brain structure in a population-representative longitudinal birth cohort.
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The study also compared other measurements and found that mean cortical thickness was lower in the lifelong antisocial behavior group, compared to the low antisocial behavior group. However, the study found that:

  • There were no significant differences in the parcels between the adolescence-limited antisocial behavior group and the low antisocial behavior.
  • There were no significant differences in the parcel-wise cortical thickness between the lifelong antisocial behavior group and the adolescence-limited antisocial behavior group.

The study was able to then conclude based on these observations, along with others not mentioned, that lifelong antisocial behavior reflects in physical differences of the brain. The significant differences were found mainly in the lifelong antisocial group, and not the low antisocial and adolescence-limited antisocial groups. It is not to be assumed that bullies, thieves, and loners have smaller brains. The study finds that lifelong antisocial behavior is required for these physical differences to be notable.

Co-author Profesor Essi Vidig commented on the limitations of the study, saying, “It is unclear whether these brain differences are inherited and precede antisocial behavior, or whether they are the result of a lifetime of confounding risk factors (eg, substance abuse, low IQ, and mental health problems) and are therefore a consequence of a persistently antisocial lifestyle.”

However, the study’s findings will definitely be useful for further neuropsychological studies, and how we can better treat antisocial behavior. These findings are especially important in an age where social media and the digital world makes us less physically social every day. The authors also mention the need for long-term, dedicated studies that can help understand the brain more in regards to lifelong antisocial behavior.

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