Individuals with a lifelong history of antisocial behavior might have a thinner cortex and smaller surface area in brain regions associated with executive function, motivation, and affect relative to those with no history of antisocial behavior, according to an observational study published in the Lancet Psychiatry. Individuals in the study who exhibited antisocial behavior during adolescence only had no widespread structural brain abnormalities.

Christina Carlisi, PhD, from the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, United Kingdom, and colleagues examined magnetic resonance imaging scans obtained at age 45 years from 672 participants in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a population-representative, longitudinal birth cohort. The team compared structural brain differences in participants who exhibited either life-course-persistent antisocial behavior (n=80) or adolescent antisocial behavior (n=151) with those who had low antisocial behavior (n=441) based on parent and teacher report, as well as self-reported conduct problems from the ages of 7 to 26 years.

Compared with participants in the low antisocial behavior group, participants with life-course-persistent antisocial behavior had a smaller mean surface area (standardized β, −0.18; 95% CI, −0.24 to −0.11; P <.0001) and lower mean cortical thickness (standardized β, −0.10; 95% CI, −0.19 to −0.02; P =.020). The group with persistent antisocial behavior also displayed reduced surface area in 282 of 360 anatomically defined parcels and thinner cortex in 11 of 360 parcels encompassing frontal and temporal regions related to executive function, emotion regulation, and motivation. The investigators found no widespread differences in brain surface morphometry in the adolescence-only group compared with either the life-course-persistent or low antisocial behavior groups.

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The investigators did not report any limitations of the study, although they concluded that they “were unable to determine whether these brain features relate to genetic or other early life risk factors that might lead to an antisocial lifestyle, or whether they are a consequence of a persistent antisocial lifestyle.”


Carlisi CO, Moffitt TE, Knodt AR, et al. Associations between life-course-persistent antisocial behaviour and brain structure in a population-representative longitudinal birth cohort. Lancet Psychiatry. 2020;7(3):245-253.