UCL News


Children with behavioural problems under-react to painful images

2 May 2013

Brain scan

When children with conduct problems see images of others in pain, key parts of their brains under-react, according to new research published today in Current Biology.

The study, led by researchers at the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, found these children show reduced responses in three areas of the brain associated with empathy for pain when looking at pictures of others in pain.

This pattern of reduced brain activity upon witnessing pain may serve as a neurobiological risk factor for later adult psychopathy. However the researchers emphasize that not all children with conduct problems are the same and many do not persist with their antisocial behaviour.

Professor Essi Viding (UCL Psychology) said: “Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain.”

“It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny. We know that children can be very responsive to interventions, and the challenge is to make those interventions even better, so that we can really help the children, their families, and their wider social environment.”

Conduct problems represent a major societal problem and include physical aggression, cruelty to others, and a lack of empathy, or “callousness”. In the United Kingdom about five percent of children qualify for a diagnosis of conduct problems but very little is known about the underlying biology.

In the new study researchers scanned children’s brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how those with conduct problems differ in their response to viewing images of others in pain.

The researchers compared the responses of 37 children with conduct problems with 18 children without conduct problems but with similar IQ, socioeconomic status and ethnicity. They showed the children digital photographs showing another person’s hand or foot in painful or non-painful situations.

The brain images showed that, relative to controls, children with conduct problems show reduced responses to others’ pain specifically in regions of the brain known to play a role in empathy (the bilateral anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex and inferior frontal gyrus). 

The researchers also saw variation among those with conduct problems, with those deemed to be more callous showing lower brain activation than less callous individuals.

“Our findings very clearly point to the fact that not all children with conduct problems share the same vulnerabilities; some may have neurobiological vulnerability to psychopathy, while others do not,” said Professor Viding.

“This raises the possibility of tailoring existing interventions to suit the specific profile of atypical processing that characterizes a child with conduct problems.” 

Media Contact: Rosie Waldron