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The development of antisocial behavior: What can we learn from functional neuroimaging studies?

  • S. L. Crowe (a1) and R. J. R. Blair (a1)

The recent development of low-risk imaging technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have had a significant impact on the investigation of psychopathologies in children and adolescents. This review considers what we can infer from fMRI work regarding the development of conduct disorder (CD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). We make two central assumptions that are grounded in the empirical literature. First, the diagnoses of CD and ODD identify individuals with heterogeneous pathologies; that is, different developmental pathologies can receive a CDD or ODD diagnosis. This is indicated by the comorbidities associated with CD/ODD, some of which appear to be mutually exclusive at the biological level (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and psychopathic tendencies). Second, two populations of antisocial individuals can be identified: those that show an increased risk for only reactive aggression and those that show an increased risk for both reactive and instrumental aggression. We review the fMRI data indicating that particular comorbidities of CD/ODD (i.e., mood and anxiety conditions such as childhood bipolar disorder and PTSD) are associated with either increased responsiveness of neural regions implicated in the basic response to threat (e.g., the amygdala) or decreased responsiveness in regions of frontal cortex (e.g., ventromedial frontal cortex) that are implicated in the regulation of the basic threat response. We suggest why such pathology would increase the risk for reactive aggression and, in turn, lead to the association with a CD/ODD diagnosis. We also review the literature on psychopathic tendencies, a condition where the individual is at significantly elevated risk for both reactive and instrumental aggression. We show that in individuals with psychopathic tendencies, the functioning of the amygdala in stimulus-reinforcement learning and of the ventromedial frontal cortex in the representation of reinforcement expectancies is impaired. We suggest why such pathology would increase the risk for reactive and instrumental aggression and thus also lead to the association with a CD/ODD diagnosis.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: James Blair, Mood & Anxiety Program, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, 15 k North Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892; E-mail:
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This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH NIMH.

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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
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