Neural connectivity during reward expectation dissociates psychopathic criminals from non-criminal individuals with high impulsive/antisocial psychopathic traits

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Criminal behaviour poses a big challenge for society. A thorough understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying criminality could optimize its prevention and management. Specifically,elucidating the neural mechanisms underpinning reward expectation might be pivotal to understanding criminal behaviour. So far no study has assessed reward expectation and its mechanisms in a criminal sample. To fill this gap, we assessed reward expectation in incarcerated, psychopathic criminals. We compared this group to two groups of non-criminal individuals: one with high levels and another with low levels of impulsive/antisocial traits. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to quantify neural responses to reward expectancy. Psychophysiological interaction analyses were performed to examine differences in functional connectivity patterns of reward-related regions. The data suggest that overt criminality is characterized, not by abnormal reward expectation per se, but rather by enhanced communication between reward-related striatal regions and frontal brain regions. We establish that incarcerated psychopathic criminals can be dissociated from non-criminal individuals with comparable impulsive/antisocial personality tendencies based on the degree to which reward-related brain regions interact with brain regions that control behaviour. The present results help us understand why some people act according to their impulsive/antisocial personality while others are able to behave adaptively despite reward-related urges.

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