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Forensics //

Forensics Research at MRN

MRN’s forensic program continues to expand in both size and scope as investigators try to shed light on the underlying causes of anti-social behaviors. Crime is estimated to cost society more than $2.3 trillion a year, and MRN researchers are hoping to discover some of the neurobiological correlates of the behaviors that cause this huge economic and societal burden. 

MRN’s forensic research team now involves more than 40 investigators and staff. Through the use of a unique mobile MRI system, over 2000 brain scans have been collected on location at adult and adolescent correctional facilities, representing the largest set of neuroimaging data ever collected from forensic populations. 

Dr. Kent Kiehl is the lead scientist of MRN’s forensic program and the Director of MRN’s mobile imaging core. “Our studies lead us to believe psychopathic behavior results from disruptions to the parts of the brain that regulate emotion, attention, decision making and other cognitive functions,” Dr. Kiehl said. When presented with a series of words intended to invoke an emotional response, psychopaths show deficits in the paralimbic regions when processing ‘emotional’ words but show greater activity in lateral frontal areas, which are considered classic language areas. “Putting it simply, they use emotional regions less, and tend to employ non-emotional areas to do the processing,” Kiehl explains. “Once we understand what causes abnormal behaviors, we can then work to more effectively diagnose and treat these disorders.” Dr. Kiehl is also a member of The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project, which is studying how neuroscience is changing the legal system. 

Another member of the team, Dr. Carla Harenski, is expanding on Kiehl’s research by studying social cognition and moral judgment in psychopaths. “The psychopath’s emotional deficits interfere with the development of normal moral socialization, beginning in childhood. As a result, they are incapable of appreciating the consequences of committing harmful, immoral actions.” While the brain systems underlying moral judgment in non-antisocial populations have been established, how these systems function in psychopaths is still unknown. “With the mobile scanner, we can now explore these questions by studying incarcerated psychopaths.” In Dr. Harenski’s recent work, she has found that psychopaths, relative to non-psychopaths, show abnormal activity in paralimbic brain regions when they view pictures depicting moral violations (e.g. one person intentionally causing harm to another). 

Harenski plans to extend her research by combining fMRI with functional genomic analyses, by including other forensic populations, such as female psychopaths and sex offenders, and by examining the effects of psychopathy and substance abuse on moral decision making. To fund this ambitious agenda, a center grant focused on the neurobiology and genomics of psychopathy and substance abuse is in preparation.

Current Research //

Addiction & Forensics Research

Substance abuse and dependence is a problem receiving increasing, well-deserved attention from both researchers and public policy makers due to the detrimental and costly impact drugs of abuse have on individuals and society.  Dependence is often characterized by compulsive use of a substance that provides short-lived pleasure and relief of anxiety, despite being aware of the harmful effects of these substances and the negative impact that it has on one’s life.  Nearly 80% of incarcerated populations meet criteria for drug and/or alcohol abuse, and we recognize that our established relationships with prisons across the country is a valuable resource for conducting research into the neural and psychological factors which promote substance abuse.  One promising avenue of this research examines functional brain activity during expectancy of reward and while monitoring conflicting influences over behavior in tasks which require specific responses.  Psychopathy is also strongly associated with substance abuse.  With access to genetic data, brain data, and long-range behavioral outcomes of those who struggle with substance abuse and dependence, we are developing more sophisticated models of the factors contributing to this problem, which may highlight the most promising strategies for prevention and treatment.

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Structural and Functional Differences in the Psychopathic Brain

Psychopaths comprise a group of individuals suffering from specific, developmental neural impairments affecting paralimbic regions of the brain, which impair a wide range of cognitive functions. These deficits often instigate patterns of antisocial deviance, but also promote a unique set of personality traits which distinguish psychopaths from the more typical criminal offender.  Psychopaths are characteristically clever and even charming while simultaneously lacking empathy and remorse, embodying a callous willingness to exploit others for personal gain.  More subtle deficits can be isolated and measured with carefully controlled experimental tasks, and these include fundamental cognitive processes like target-detection, response inhibition, error-monitoring, and language-semantic processing.  A major, continuing goal of our research is to elucidate the nature of structural and functional differences in the brains of psychopaths, determining how these contribute to problems with emotional processing, poor moral judgment, lack of empathy, and basic cognitive deficits.  We examine the development of these deficits from youth to maturity, studying juveniles and adult inmates, both male and female, strategically identifying neurocognitive features which impair normal brain development and distinguishing psychopaths from the everyday criminal offender.

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Development of Behavioral Prediction Models

A great deal of research has been devoted to determining functional differences in brain activity that are typically found in specific groups such as incarcerated individuals, psychopaths, and substance dependent populations; however,  a more progressive goal  is to move beyond this descriptive research, using what has been learned to establish methods for the prospective analysis of specific outcomes of interest.  Our lab has collected the world’s largest multimodal database of neuroimaging, genetic information, and clinical assessments for thousands of incarcerated individuals, which grows larger every day.  This database has provided a unique capacity to develop highly reliable models which can effectively predict the likelihood of outcomes such as recidivism, treatment success, and relapse based on brain structure, brain function, genetic information and clinical assessment data.  Recent research in our lab has demonstrated the promising relative utility of functional brain activity in establishing these predictions, as it has the advantage of being a proximal measurement of cognitive processes that would directly contribute to these outcomes.  Effectively predicting complex behavioral outcomes such as recidivism might prove to be a key factor in choosing appropriate intervention strategies based on physical characteristics of the brain and its function.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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