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Neural responses to fearful eyes in children with conduct problems and varying levels of callous–unemotional traits

  • C. L. Sebastian (a1) (a2), E. J. McCrory (a1), M. R. Dadds (a3), C. A. M. Cecil (a1), P. L. Lockwood (a1), Z. H. Hyde (a1), S. A. De Brito (a4) and E. Viding (a1)...

Children with conduct problems (CP) are a heterogeneous group. Those with high levels of callous–unemotional traits (CP/HCU) appear emotionally under-reactive at behavioural and neural levels whereas those with low levels of CU traits (CP/LCU) appear emotionally over-reactive, compared with typically developing (TD) controls. Investigating the degree to which these patterns of emotional reactivity are malleable may have important translational implications. Instructing participants with CP/HCU to focus on the eyes of fearful faces (i.e. the most salient feature) can ameliorate their fear-recognition deficits, but it is unknown whether this is mediated by amygdala response. It is also unknown whether focusing on fearful eyes is associated with increased amygdala reactivity in CP/LCU.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure neural responses to fearful and calm faces in children with CP/HCU, CP/LCU and TD controls (n = 17 per group). On half of trials participants looked for a blue dot anywhere within target faces; on the other half, participants were directed to focus on the eye region.


Reaction time (RT) data showed that CP/LCU were selectively slowed in the fear/eyes condition. For the same condition, CP/LCU also showed increased amygdala and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC)/orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) responses compared with TD controls. RT and amygdala response to fear/eyes were correlated in CP/LCU only. No effects of focusing on the eye region were observed in CP/HCU.


These data extend the evidence base suggesting that CU traits index meaningful heterogeneity in conduct problems. Focusing on regulating reactive emotional responses may be a fruitful strategy for children with CP/LCU.

Corresponding author
* Author for correspondence: E. Viding, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, UK. (Email: [E. Viding] (Email: [C. L. Sebastian]
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