Editors' ChoiceMedicine

Crime Is Its Own Reward

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Science Translational Medicine  26 May 2010:
Vol. 2, Issue 33, pp. 33ec84
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3001294

Antisocial behavior has existed since humans began living in social groups, and it remains a bane of civilized society. Although this complex phenomenon is clearly sensitive to events in an individual’s environment, exciting recent work has emphasized neurobiological factors that underlie these behaviors. This research includes the study of individual differences in how our brains engage the environment. A recent study by Buckholtz and colleagues suggests that impulsive-antisocial personality traits may arise from heightened activity in the midbrain dopaminergic reward system. They studied a sample of adults, evaluating impulsive-antisocial traits with standard personality testing. To examine how these individuals process reward in the brain, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron-emission tomography to measure the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens while participants performed a monetary reward task. In the neural reward system, both dopamine neurotransmission and the response to rewarding stimuli were higher for those who manifested more impulsive-antisocial traits.These measures of brain function more closely mirrored socially deviant behavior than the emotional-interpersonal features of psychopathy. Further, this association could not be accounted for by other cognitive or personality factors that depend on dopamine function, such as self-reported attentional control, novelty seeking, or extraversion. Taken together, these results suggest that exaggerated activity in the brain’s reward system may form the basis for a clinical feature of antisocial personality, one with an enormous societal impact. If these findings can be generalized to clinical populations with antisocial personality disorder, this disorder may emerge from the world of law enforcement and corrections to take its appropriate place as a treatable condition of mind and brain.

J. Buckholtz et al., Mesolimbic dopamine reward system hypersensitivity in individuals with psychopathic traits. Nat. Neurosci. 13, 419–421(2010). [Full Text]

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