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Essi Viding & Eamon McCrory discuss antisocial behaviour, childhood adversity and the brain.

Words Kate Hilpern Photograph Alun Callender

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Children who lack empathy appear to be strongly influenced by genetics – they are genetically vulnerable to antisocial conduct

What makes some young people behave in an antisocial way? Should we blame the parents? The schools? What can studying the brain teach us?

Professor Essi Viding and Professor Eamon McCrory, co-directors of the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit, are attempting to answer some of those questions. They study young people who engage in antisocial behaviour, looking at how antisocial behaviour develops and how that may be connected to the neural consequences of maltreatment.

“Because maltreatment is one of the big risk factors for the development of antisocial behaviour, there is a natural overlap in the research themes,” explains Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology. The ability to explore this old problem in new ways, including the use of brain imaging techniques, has inevitably led to some surprises.

Viding has a particular interest in how antisocial behaviour emerges. She says a key finding is that “antisocial behaviour in children who lack empathy appears to be strongly influenced by genetics – that is, they are genetically vulnerable (although not destined) to antisocial conduct – while children who are more reactive and have difficulties with emotional regulation appear to have more environmental origins to their behavioural problems.”

A recent experiment involved showing children emotional faces extremely fast while measuring brain activity via an MRI scan. “We found that the group lacking empathy did not have the typical reactivity in the emotional processing parts of the brain, whereas the group that had emotional regulation problems showed over-reactivity to the faces in the same brain areas.

“Whilst for typical people the emotions grab the attention in the very earliest levels of processing, this showed that they don’t do so for the group that lacked empathy, and that they do so far too much for the other group. It’s fascinating to discover such differences among children who all display antisocial behaviour.”

As McCrory, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology, points out, this is particularly significant because clinical research demonstrates that the group who have so-called “high levels of callous and unemotional traits” represent a very high-risk group. “They are more likely to show more violent and more severe antisocial behaviour and persist in that behaviour over time.”

As a consultant clinical psychologist, McCrory has seen for himself that children who show callousness and severe patterns of antisocial behaviour can wreak real havoc on their peer groups, families and wider communities. “Yet what is very striking is that these children don’t seem to be receiving tailored packages of intervention that meet this often quite unique profile that they tend to present with.”

McCrory has a particular interest in understanding the impact of maltreatment and early adversity. One of the most exciting areas of their work centres on challenging how the impact of maltreatment is understood. “Currently we know that children who experience abuse and neglect can have problems for which they don’t get intervention unless they present with something like anxiety of depression,” says McCrory. “In a new study, now underway, we are trying to identify early precursors of long term vulnerability – something we are calling markers of latent vulnerability.”

Children don’t suddenly develop a mental health problem at 14, he explains. “The early markers are there at eight, nine or 10. So with our longitudinal study, we are trying to systematically identify a range of possible neuro-cognitive markers that indicate a child is on a risk trajectory and that child is vulnerable. If we are able to identify those children at most risk earlier on then there is potential to intervene at an early stage and prevent mental health problems appearing in the first place.”

These children have already experienced more than anyone should in their lifetime, points out Viding. “It’s a terrible injustice to sit and wait around to see if they get a mental health problem if something could be done sooner.”

Among the notions that Viding and McCrory are particularly keen to challenge through their work is that children’s behaviours are all down to parents. “Nobody parents a blank slate. The child brings something to the parenting equation and our research shows big cognitive differences among children that will make some more challenging to parents than others.

“Our work is about exploring how these children see and understand the world and then how to help them in the world – something that has implications for parenting programmes too.”

“Ultimately, our research is only meaningful if it improves the lives of children,” says McCrory. “We need to demonstrate that research can make a difference, shape practice and inform health priorities in the way children’s services are organised and run.”

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