Principal Investigators //


Carla Harenski, PhD

Assistant Professor of Translational Neuroscience

Carla Harenski

Dr. Harenski studies the neuroscience of psychiatric disorders that are related to criminal behavior and incarceration (e.g., psychopathy, substance abuse, paraphilias). Of special interest is social emotion and cognition (e.g., empathy, moral judgment) in these conditions. This research is conducted in prison populations, which is made possible via the Mind Research Network’s mobile magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system and partnerships with correctional facilities across New Mexico and other states.
Dr. Harenski’s research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

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Neurobiology of Social Emotion and Cognition in Criminal Offenders with Psychosis

This COBRE-funded project is designed to study social emotion and cognition (SEC) in forensic psychiatric populations. SEC impairment is a prominent feature of psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia (SZ), but the behavioral and neural correlates of SEC in SZ relative to other psychotic disorders is not well understood. There is also a lack of research examining the association between SEC deficits and dimensions of psychosis symptomatology (e.g., positive vs. negative symptoms). To date, most studies of SEC in psychosis have been conducted in community populations, with less attention directed towards forensic or criminal populations due to the practical challenges of conducting neuroimaging studies in secure institutions and prisons. Criminal offenders with psychotic disorders may show particularly severe neurobehavioral deficits in SEC, but this has not yet been studied. This project will capitalize on the availability of a unique mobile MRI scanner which will be deployed to several secure forensic psychiatric and prison facilities to study criminal offenders with and without psychotic disorders. Structural and functional MRI will be used to examine the neural circuitry underlying higher-order SEC processes (empathy, perspective taking) and associations with psychosis, mood, and aggression symptoms. The results of this study are expected to provide a novel dataset in an understudied forensic criminal population that will elucidate the nature of SEC among different types and features of psychosis.

Brain Imaging of Incarcerated Populations

The MIND Research Network’s mobile MRI scanner is a unique resource that has provided us with unprecedented access to incarcerated populations. This has been invaluable to our research given the prevalence of psychopathy and paraphilias in correctional institutions. We are fortunate both in the availability of the mobile MRI and our longstanding partnerships with correctional institutions in New Mexico, Wisconsin and other states.

Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience of Paraphilias

Paraphilias are recurrent and intrusive sexual impulses involving one or more forms of sexually deviant behavior, such as sex with children, sex during the commission of physical or psychological harm to others, or unlawfully exposing oneself to others. Individuals with a paraphilia may commit sexual offenses against others that have devastating, long-lasting effects. Thus, implementing effective treatment for paraphilias is of high societal importance. A challenge to the development of such treatment is that the etiological mechanisms of paraphilias are not well understood. Case studies have reported associations between brain injury and sudden-onset sexual offending (e.g., sexual abuse of children), suggesting that neurobiological abnormalities are an important etiological factor. However, the precise nature of such abnormalities is unknown. We are currently using structural and functional MRI to elucidate the neurobiology of paraphilic interests. For example, in a recent study we examined the brain responses of incarcerated sexual sadists relative to non-sadistic violent sex offenders while they viewed clips of people causing pain to others (Harenski et al., 2012). The results showed a unique pattern of activity in sexual sadists involving increased responses in the amygdala, insula, and temporo-parietal junction. The results suggest that sadists engaged in greater simulation of other’s pain and had increased positive emotional responses while viewing pain images.

Ongoing projects in this area include:

  • Examining the neurobiology of impulsivity, facial expression processing, and moral judgment in paraphilias, particularly pedophilia and sexual sadism.
  • Examining changes in brain structure and function in paraphilias after successful completion of a structured treatment program for sexual offenders.

Moral Judgment in Psychopathy

Psychopathy is a disorder defined by a cluster of interpersonal, affective and behavioral characteristics including impulsivity, grandiosity, callousness and lack of empathy. Psychopathy is also characterized by early emerging, severe and persistent antisocial behaviors, many of which are often described as ‘immoral’ (e.g. committing acts of violence against others).  Psychopaths commit these moral transgressions despite being fully aware of their ‘wrongness’. In laboratory settings, psychopaths are often skilled at giving the ‘right’ answers to interviewers concerning moral judgments. For example, when asked whether a person should keep money found in a lost wallet, the psychopath is just as likely as the nonpsychopath to say that the money should be returned, even if this bears no relation to what the psychopath would actually do when faced with this scenario. This presents a challenge to uncovering the mechanisms underlying the psychopaths’ profound moral insensitivity. To address this issue, studies in our laboratory have used functional MRI to examine how the psychopath’s brain responds when making moral judgments. We have found that psychopaths show remarkably different patterns of brain activity compared to nonpsychopaths, even while making the same moral judgments as nonpsychopaths (Harenski et al., 2010). For example, nonpsychopaths but not psychopaths showed a positive correlation between activity in brain regions involved in emotional processing and harsher moral judgments.

Ongoing projects in this area include:

  • Examining whether aberrant brain responses during moral judgment in adult male psychopaths are also present in female psychopaths and adolescents with psychopathic traits.
  • Examining how the psychopaths’ brain responds during moral intuitive processing compared to explicit moral judgments.