White matter month 2014: psychopath guilt and connectivity

January is our White Matter month, (à la January “white sales”), something we’ve been doing since 2008:

Edward Degas, Woman Ironing 1887 courtesy National Gallery of Art

White matter month 2008

White matter month 2009.

White matter month 2010 — oops we must have forgot about that in 2010

White matter month 2011

White matter month 2012 – we were overwhelmed and depressed so we weren’t doing much blogging

White matter month 2013

Sigh. A walk down dysfunctional memory lane for us. We remember when discussing psychopathy as a biological condition was outré, fringe. “No,” they said. “It’s a mental state.”  Yeah. Like vapors.

The terminology has moved on too. As we said last year, we should just change the jargon to be “connectivity.” (Now, that would ruin the whole “white matter” –> “white sales” day attempt at being clever. Cf., Tyler Durden, “Clever. How’s that working for you?“.) “White Matter” just sounds awful, like a newsletter for racists.

So here we are again, white matter month 2014. We would feel guilty for forgetting. So what’s up with connectivity and guilt?

Guilt, or remorse, is a complicated thing, involving empathy,envy, schadenfreude, justice — all of which has been studied for biological loci. And, overlay social neuroscience — in groups, out groups, bonding — the whole thing needs to be parsed out and unraveled. We suspect that different kinds of guilt/remorse have different kinds of pathways and structural locations.

Feelings of guilt or remorse can mitigate criminal culpability for sentencing — yet, biological disabilities can also mitigate criminal culpability. So if guilt/remorse is biological, shouldn’t lack there of be mitigating? (A rhetorical question, we think that the criminal justice system gets all balled up in punishment versus therapy; another post, another time. But, as it stands, if punishment is at least in large part to protect society, then someone who is biologically incapable of being a safe member of society should be locked up, no? (Taking the argument to the extreme.)

Who hasn’t said, “Have they no shame?” after being blatantly ripped off by someone who seems to shrug when caught.

Psychopaths in our orbit don’t seem to feel guilt, remorse, shame or any of it. They view it operationally: this didn’t work, I’ll try something else. When called on it, they revert to aggression: “are you done attacking me?,” they trivialize their transgressions, and go right on foisting blame while confiscating credit.  Unbounded ambition while stunted morality. Expressions of regret are not in their vocabulary. It’s quite remarkable, and over-the-top obvious. (Which leads us to wonder about self-perception.)

So. Biology.

Four recent papers point to the precuneus as having something to do with guilt or remorse (or lack thereof).

The first paper, Tang et al., report precuneus white matter volumes are higher in ASPD individuals as compared to normal controls. Ok, not what we would think (we would think fewer white matter tracts), but OK, interesting. Pathological liars also have excess white matter, but in the frontal lobes. (We have no idea if this is relevant or not.)

The second paper, Fourie et al., report a study on prejudice — by exposing non-prejudiced individuals to prejudiced statements against race and disability. The precuneus was activated in processing that kind of guilt.

The Basile et al. paper reports that in individuals diagnosed with OCD, there is abnormal “moral transgression” guilt processing in the precuneus (among other structures).

Bertsch et al. say, in a population of violent criminals, those diagnosed with a personality disorder (BPD or ASPD-BDP) have smaller precuneuses (precunei?) than others.

So psychopaths have small precunei but packed with white matter. Is this the physical correlate of being self-centered without a whit of guilt?  As said in Tang et al.,

. . .In this study, all of the examined brain regions are related to symptoms of depersonalization. The functional and structural deficits may underlie the low arousal, high impulsivity, lack of conscience, cold-bloodedness and decision-making deficits of seen in ASPD. ASPD may be characterized by uncoupling of functional connectivity patterns at the network level. Many behavioral changes in ASPD may be associated with individual networks, and ASPD may arise as an interaction between these behaviors. . . .

Depersonalization. Yup.

*  *  *Paper citation and excerpts next page* * *

Tang Y, Jiang W, Liao J, Wang W, Luo A (2013) Identifying Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder Using Resting-State fMRI. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60652. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060652. This paper looks at the resting state connectivity of ASPD-ers (who may be a proxy for psychopaths, but it’s not clear in the paper), and finds, among other things, that the precuneus had lower white matter volumes as compared to controls.

. . .More importantly, we found that the greatest change in the ASPD subjects was uncoupling between the default mode network and the attention network. Moreover, the precuneus, superior parietal gyrus and cerebellum exhibited high discriminative power in classification. A voxel-based morphometry analysis was performed and showed that the gray matter volumes in the parietal lobule and white matter volumes in the precuneus were abnormal in ASPD compared to controls.. . .

Fourie, MM, Thomas, KG, Amodio, DM, Warton CM, and EM Meintjes (2014) Neural correlates of experienced moral emotion:  An fMRI investigation of emotion in response to prejudice feedback. Social Neuroscience 2014 Jan 22. PMID: 24450582

. . .The paradigm induced intense moral-negative emotion (primarily guilt) in 22 low-prejudice individuals through preprogrammed feedback indicating implicit prejudice against Black and disabled people. fMRI data indicated that this experience of moral-negative emotion was associated with increased activity in anterior paralimbic structures, including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula, in addition to areas associated with mentalizing, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and precuneus. . . .

Basile B, Mancini F, Macaluso E, Caltagirone C, Bozzali M. Abnormal processing of deontological guilt in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Brain Struct Funct. 2013 May 17. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23681167.

. . . When separately considering each type of guilt (against each of its control), patients showed decreased activation in the ACC, the insula and the precuneus, for DG[moral transgression guilt]. No significant differences were observed between groups when processing AG [altruistic guilt], anger or sad stimuli. This study provides evidence for an abnormal processing of guilt, and specifically DG, in OCD patients. We suggest that decreased activation may reflect patients’ cerebral efficiency, which derives from their frequent exposure to guilty feelings (“neural efficiency hypothesis”). In conclusion, our study confirms a selective abnormal processing of guilt, and specifically DG, in OCD. . . .

Bertsch K, Grothe M, Prehn K, Vohs K, Berger C, Hauenstein K, Keiper P, Domes G, Teipel S, Herpertz SC. Brain volumes differ between diagnostic groups of violent criminal offenders.Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2013 Oct;263(7):593-606. doi:

10.1007/s00406-013-0391-6. Epub 2013 Feb 5.

.  . . Volumetric reductions in ASPD-PP were most significant in midline cortical areas involved in the processing of self-referential information and self-reflection (i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate/precuneus) and recognizing emotions of others (postcentral gyrus) and could reflect neural correlates of the psychopathic core features of callousness and poor moral judgment. . . .