Parts of the brain involved in judgment, planning and decision-making are different among teenagers with conduct problems, according to researchers Lance Bauer, Ph.D., and Victor Hesselbrock, Ph.D., professors in the Department of Psychiatry at the UConn Health Center.
Earlier research has shown that most people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder begin to display significant behavioral problems in childhood, which often leads to substance abuse and dependence, and may led to criminal behavior. According to the researchers, this study attempted to identify differences in brain activity that might explain this risk factor.
Their study involved 158 youngsters aged 14 to 20 years, half of whom had demonstrated conduct disorder and half had not…. After comparing the responses in the two groups, Drs. Bauer and Hesselbrock found a significant difference. “The brainwaves from the prefrontal cortex of the youngsters with conduct problems showed reduced activity,” said Dr. Bauer. “There was no significant difference between the groups in other areas of the brain. It appears that conduct problems are associated with a specific dysfunction of the frontal brain,” he said.
“Identifying these troubled youths is a step toward helping these youngsters avoid a future of substance abuse and criminal behavior,” said Dr. Hesselbrock.
I’m hardpressed to see the import of this study. I think it was in Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire that the doctor, asked to explain why opium poppies put users to sleep, replied with a self-important fluorish that it was (paraphrasing) “of course, my esteemed colleagues, that they contain a dormative principle“, as if that explained anything.[Oops; I used that one already
last year. — FmH] Bauer and Hesselbrock are hardly less tautologous, once one accepts that behavior is brain-based. It has long been known, particularly from time-honored studies of the behavioral changes caused by brain lesions and injuries in various regions, that the prefrontal cortex mediates inhibition of impulses, planful activity, and (see below*; it is only a small stretch to say) appreciation of social norms and the ability to conform one’s behavior to them. So it is a trivial finding that conduct-disordered youths differ from controls in prefrontal activity.
Perhaps what troubles me is the ‘granularity’ of the study, if you will. Using EEG, rather than PET scanning, SPECT scanning, functional MRI, or some newer imaging technologies, allows nothing better than the large-scale regional conclusions (“It’s the prefrontal area”) that we already recognize. Further quibbles: this press release from AScribe does not indicate, but let us hope that the journal article makes it clear, whether the study was blind, i.e. whether the the EEG readers knew whether the tracing they were interpreting came from a conduct-disordered subject or a control before they rated its prefrontal activity. Finally, the neuropsychology of impulse control, aggression and antisociality is quite poorly understood and there are few resources to treat disorders in this sphere, so I wonder, from a practical standpoint as well as a social policy one, exactly how Dr Hesselbrock, in the final quotation above, would plan to “identify” or “help” these youths. [Perhaps he’s just seen Minority Report?]
*Coincidentally, the latest issue of the journal Brain has this very pertinent editorial by Antoine Bechara from Iowa, making my *above point — The Neurology of Social Cognition:
“Impairments of emotion and social behaviour are often observed after damage to the ventromedial (VM) region of the prefrontal cortex Previously well-adapted individuals become unable to observe social conventions and decide advantageously on personal matters. Their ability to express emotion and to experience feelings in appropriate social situations becomes compromised. Studies aimed at understanding the nature of these deficits revealed that impaired ‘judgement and decision-making’ is at the heart of the problem…’ “