Antisocial behavior recognizable by brain structure

Antisocial behavior recognizable by brain structure

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Identify potential offenders by the structure of the brain

Theft, aggression, use of violence, bullying, lying, not trying to work - according to a recent study, such or similar antisocial behavior is associated with effects on the brain structure or people with certain brain structures are prone to antisocial behavior. MRI brain scans have shown that there are characteristic differences in the brains of anti-social and social people.

Researchers from University College London and Duke University investigated the differences in brain structure between people who behave socially and people who are prone to anti-social behavior. It turned out that the brains of antisocial people had on average a smaller surface and a smaller thickness of the cortex (cerebral cortex) than the brains of people who behave socially. The results were presented in the psychological journal "The Lancet Psychiatry".

Anti-social people have smaller brains

In the observational study with 672 participants, MRI scans showed that people who showed lifelong anti-social behavior have a thinner cortex than social people. In addition, the surface area of ​​certain brain regions was smaller in comparison with antisocial people. The affected regions have been associated with anti-social behavior in previous studies.

Antisocial behavior during puberty

A large number of adolescents show increased anti-social behavior during puberty. However, the study showed that this does not affect brain structure if behavior changes with maturity. "Most people who show anti-social behavior primarily do this only in adolescence," explains the lead study author Dr. Christina Carlisi.

However, according to the study, these people show no structural differences in the brain. These people are also generally capable of reform and would often become valuable members of society.

The first robust proof

The greatest difference was the individual difference among those who behaved anti-social from childhood to adulthood. The study is the first to examine structural differences in the brain associated with lifelong or temporary antisocial behavior. According to the researchers, the study provides the first robust evidence that the underlying neuropsychological differences are primarily associated with lifelong and consistent antisocial behavior.

Are anti-social people unable to develop social skills?

"Our results support the idea that there are differences in brain structure among the small proportion of people with lifelong anti-social behavior that make it difficult for them to develop social skills," explains Carlisi. This may prevent those affected from showing or learning social behavior. “These people could benefit from more support throughout their lives,” says the study author.

About the participants

The 672 participants were divided into different groups based on reports from parents, carers, teachers and self-reports on behavioral problems. 12 percent (80 people) had lifelong anti-social behavior, 23 percent (151 people) had only youthful anti-social behavior, and 66 percent (441 participants) had no history of persistent anti-social behavior. MRI brain scans were carried out on all subjects.

The result

On average, the lifelong anti-social group had the smallest brain surface and the thinnest cortex. In addition, people with lifelong anti-social behavior had a smaller surface area in 282 out of 360 brain regions and a thinner cortex in 11 out of 360 regions compared to the other groups. Many of the affected regions are associated with targeted behavior, the regulation of emotions and the general ability to motivate.

Identify criminals by their brain structure?

The researchers point out that adolescents who show persistent anti-social behavior that started in childhood are often diagnosed with behavioral disorders. These adolescents also have an increased risk of being arrested later in life. In addition, poor physical or mental health is found more often in these people.

Should some juvenile offenders get special therapies?

"Political approaches among juvenile offenders often fluctuate between punitive measures and approaches that leave room for reform," says co-author Terrie Moffitt. However, the study indicated the need to take different approaches for different offenders. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • The Lancet Psychiatry: Life-course-persistent antisocial behavior may be associated with differences in brain structure (published: 02.17.2020),
  • Christina O Carlisi, Terrie E Moffitt, Annchen R Knodt, et al .: Associations between life-course-persistent antisocial behavior and brain structure in a population-representative longitudinal birth cohort; in: The Lancet Psychiatry, 2020,

Video: Antisocial Behavior. Psychology (November 2022).