Where Brain Biology Begins and Ends

Dr. Kent Kiehl, The Mind Research Lab

Survivors of psychopaths have waited a long time to find out ‘officially’ what they already suspected was true: that there are biological brain differences in psychopaths. The women we interviewed for ‘Women Who Love Psychopaths’ talked specifically about psychopath’s impulse control problems, an incomplete spectrum of emotions, unusual processing of emotional and factual information, surface attachments,  superficial (yet impassioned) relating, and poor response to punishment. Since pathology effects personality which is how a person thinks, feels, relates, and behaves, psychopathy results in exceptional negative effects on all of those pervasive aspects of personality.

These differences in brain function help partners (and us) understand beyond an assumed ‘willful behavior’ theory why biological brain differences drive psychopaths’ behaviors. We already know that brain regions affect and regulate emotions which regulate behavior such as violence. The NIH (National Institute for Health) in 2006 reported a study that an aggression-related gene weakens the brain’s impulse control circuits. In an NIH newsletter they state, “A version of a gene previously linked to impulsive violence appears to weaken brain circuits that regulate impulses, emotional memory and thinking in humans. Brain scans revealed that people with this version — especially males — tended to have relatively smaller emotion-related brain structures, a hyperactive alarm center and under-active impulse control circuitry. The study identifies neural mechanisms by which this gene likely contributes to risk for violent and impulsive behavior through effects on the developing brain…These new findings illustrate the breathtaking power of ‘imaging genomics’ to study the brain’s workings in a way that helps us to understand the circuitry underlying diversity in human temperament said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D… By itself, this gene is likely to contribute only a small amount of risk in interaction with other genetic and psychosocial influences; it won’t ‘make’ people violent explained Meyer-Lindenberg. But by studying its effects in a large sample of normal people, we were able to see how this gene variant biases the brain toward impulsive, aggressive behavior.”

How much more then for a psychopath who is the ultimate in impulsive and aggressive behavior? Whose lack of emotional memory and poor impulse control is likely to = relational harm to those in intimate relationships with them? The issue of biology as a contributing factor of psychopathy has been one of the single most important relational harm educational tools that The Institute has come across. Partners of psychopaths can relate to the obvious brain regulating differences in the psychopaths without having known the source of it. Understanding the degree that brain differences plays in the psychopaths thinking, feeling, relating, and behaving helps partners understand what they are up against in their decisions about their own safety in these relationships. Perhaps this very issue will eventually impact how we gauge lethality risks in domestic violence and help us make better decisions about Batterer Intervention programs.

Dr. Kent Kiehl of The Mind Research Lab is using similar MRI’s that NIH has used in their 2006 studies to specifically study the brain differences in psychopaths. In the audio interview with Dr. Kiehl he addresses what he hopes that MRI’s will provide in understanding psychopath’s behaviors and risks. We talk with him about the details of his MRI research and its relevance to the diagnosis of psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder using such tests as the Psychopathy Checklist and the DSM-IV. He also shares his thoughts on the possible use of MRI scans themselves as a diagnostic tool, and possible methods to screen out psychopaths from certain occupations. While Dr. Kiehl also hopes that MRIs will some day provide insight into ‘treatment options’ for psychopaths, The Institute is slightly less optimistic. However, we do share the optimism of deeper understanding of how pathology affects and increases behavioral harm that ultimately relates in relational harm.

Dr. Kiehl is also using MRI’s to better understand other brain responses in different mental illnesses like
schizophrenia and addictions. We asked him about the potential of one day using these MRI’s to
understand possible brain differences in other personality disorders, especially Cluster B’s in Borderlines
and Narcissists. The Institute believes one day those brain differences may be as evident as they have been
in psychopaths. As we step further into the understanding of brain function on the quality of relational health, we open doors for partner education and treatment approaches for those harmed by pathology.

We think you will find the interview with Dr. Kiehl to be enlightening and fascinating and the link for it is listed below. We also invite you to read the in depth interview with Dr. Kiehl in our Research Section done by The New Yorker. We graciously thank Dr. Kiehl for his interview, his education to the field of psychopathy, and for his profound work.

Listen to the interview with Dr. Kiehl.

You can read more about The Mind Research Network at www.mrn.org.

All content does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Institute.