Researchers identify widespread brain alterations in children with callousness

A study in Biological Psychiatry characterizes the neural profile of callousness in children


Philadelphia, December 13, 2018

Children with elevated levels of callous traits—such as a lack of remorse and disregard for other people’s feelings—show widespread differences in brain structure compared with children with lower levels of the traits, according to a new study published in Biological Psychiatry. The differences, which included large- and small-scale structural alterations, support the idea of callous traits as a neurodevelopmental condition.

Using brain imaging techniques to examine the structure of the brain, researchers from Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, found lower overall brain volumes associated with callous traits in children. Childhood callous traits were also associated with differences in how the brain is wired together, referred to as connectivity.

“This is the first study to comprehensively examine the relationship between callous traits and brain structure in the general child population, based on data from over 2,000 10-year-old children,” said senior author Charlotte Cecil, PhD.

Understanding the development of childhood callous traits is an important but unanswered question, as they are an early risk factor for negative behaviors and health outcomes later in life, like criminality, psychiatric disorders and substance abuse. And callous traits aren’t something that you either have or don’t have, said Dr. Cecil, but rather they “exist as a continuum in the overall population (i.e., like height or weight), so that everyone scores somewhere along this spectrum.”

“How is it that some children are born with an indifference to the suffering of others? This is an important science question about the neural basis for empathy. It is also an important humanistic question as the lack of a capacity for empathy presents a fundamental challenge to living collaboratively within a community. This study highlights important deficits affecting higher brain centers that may contribute to callousness,” said John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

The affected brain centers included those important for decision-making, emotion regulation, and behavior control. The researchers ruled out other emotional and behavior problems that often co-occur with callousness, indicating that the alterations are specific to callous traits—an important finding as the researchers hope that future research will investigate whether brain structure may be useful as a screening tool for these traits in children.

“In addition, our study was the first to examine neuroanatomical features of callous traits in a sample with an equal distribution of boys and girls, making it possible to test for sex differences,” said first author Koen Bolhuis, MD. The association between brain structures and callous traits was similar for boys and girls, but the association between brain connectivity and callous traits was only observed in girls. “This could mean that the brain development related to callous traits differs for girls and boys.”

Because the researchers examined each child only once, they were not able to determine cause and consequence, or if the callousness-related alterations predict how the children would turn out, like their school performance or later substance use. But the findings suggest that children with callous traits show differences in brain development, which provides a jumping off point for future research to understand how severe antisocial behavior develops later in life.

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Notes for editors
The article is "Neural profile of callous traits in children: a population-based neuroimaging study," by Koen Bolhuis, Essi Viding, Ryan L. Muetzel, Hanan El Marroun, Desana Kocevska, Tonya White, Henning Tiemeier, and Charlotte A. M. Cecil (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.10.015). It appears in Biological Psychiatry, published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Rhiannon Bugno at rbugno@sobp.org or +1 214 648 0880. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Charlotte A. M. Cecil at press@erasmusmc.nl or +31 10 7033289.

The authors’ affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, MD, is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 6th out of 142 Psychiatry titles and 9th out of 261 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Clarivate Analytics. The 2017 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 11.982. www.sobp.org/journal

About Elsevier
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Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno
Editorial Office, Biological Psychiatry
+1 214 648 0880
rbugno@sobp.org