Anti-social behaviour in girls attributed to key brain differences
The brains of teenage girls with behavioural disorders are fundamentally different to those of their peers, UK researchers have found.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, a study of 40 teenage girls found striking differences in the structure of areas in the brain linked with empathy and emotion.
The findings are unprecedented; there has been limited research on females within this area.
Published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the results were found by scanning the brains of 22 teenage girls who had conduct disorder, and comparing them with the brain scans of 20 who did not.
Previous work has found similar results in boys. The team found that a part of the brain, called the amygdale, was smaller in the brains of male and female teenagers with conduct disorder than in their peers.
The amygdale is associated with the ability to feel afraid, and the ability to understand when others feel fear.
Girls with conduct disorder also had less grey matter in an area of the brain called the insula, which has been linked to the understanding of emotions.
Interestingly, grey matter in the insula was in fact larger in boys with conduct disorder than in healthy peers. Researchers are yet to understand why this gender imbalance exists.
Overall, however, the brains of those with the worst behaviour displayed the most differences from the norm.
Dr Graeme Fairchild, a lecturer in Abnormal Psychology at the University of Cambridge, worked on the study and said there were potential uses for their findings.
"In the US, people are already using brain scans to argue diminished responsibility. I think we're too early in our understanding to really do that, but it is happening”, he said.
Indeed, experts suggest it may be possible to use brain scans to spot problems early, then offer appropriate social or psychological help.
"More help could be given to the family and, in the same way that someone with language impairment receives extra help, help could be given to teach a person to understand emotions, and the emotions of others, better", Dr Fairchild concluded.