A new article investigates treatments and early detection systems for children with antisocial tendencies.

Rather than referring to these children as "psychopaths," as the article title suggests, researchers are looking at ways to ameliorate the behavioral difficulties of children with "callous and unemotional traits." As the Atlantic reports, signs of these traits may appear as early as infancy or during preschool years. Now, for the first time, research has been able to look into biological causes and behavioral treatments that may make such early detection worthwhile.

Researchers broadly divide children with callous traits into two camps: those whose environments have encouraged muted emotion and tough behavior, and those who grew up in loving and safe homes but display harsh traits anyway. Some areas of the brain appear to be involved regardless of background:

  • A child's amygdala, responsible for fear and emotional sensitivity, may be under-developed, so that a child does not care about others' pain or fear the consequences of bad behavior;
  • A child's reward circuitry in the prefrontal cortex may be hypersensitized so that they focus only on the gains of their actions;
  • There may be a low resting level of internal neural stimulation that leads children to seek stimulation externally through thrill seeking.

Given this new knowledge, psychologists at the Mendota Center in Wisconsin have developed a program for some of the hardest-to-treat incarcerated youth. Rather than focusing on punishment for bad behavior, or reacting with extreme emotion, staff at the center work to minimize their reactions to assault and reward their charges for any good behavior, building safe but firmly regulated relationships. This approach has been associated with far lower rates of violence and recidivism after release.

To read the full article, please visit the Atlantic website.