A New Treatment for Criminal Psychopaths?
Criminal psychopaths are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. Their personality disorder, which renders them antisocial, callous, and disinhibited, makes them three to four times more likely to reoffend after release from prison compared to non-psychopaths. For many, prison is neither a punishment nor a deterrent, making it an altogether ineffective remedy.
Psychopathy is often said to be incurable, but that's partially because scientists have yet to conclusively identify the underlying causes. You can't fix something until you know how it's broken. The predicament hasn't stopped behaviorists from trying to treat psychopathy, though. Behavioral modification focused on positive reinforcement has shown promise among youth psychopaths, resulting in a marked drop in recidivism and violent behavior.
Adult criminal psychopaths are harder to treat, however. Neuroplasticity, the tendency of the brain to change, significantly diminishes with age, making adults far less malleable.
Undeterred, lead researcher Dr. Lilian Konicar and her team recruited 14 criminal psychopaths -- all with long and severely violent histories -- for an intensive program designed to teach them to control their brain activity. The method, called neurofeedback, has been used preliminarily in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder with generally positive results. It involves hooking up a patient to an EEG machine to monitor brain activity. The activity is then represented on a computer screen by a graphical object. Patients then try to move the object by controlling their brain activity, receiving positive feedback for moving it in an indicated direction, like a video game.
Konicar had the psychopaths perform neurofeedback training during 25 sessions spread over 3 months. After the study, subjects demonstrated improved control of their brain activity. They also reported reduced levels of impulsivity and aggression, assessed via an in-depth questionnaire before and after the intervention. Crucially, Konicar found that the subjects better able to control their brain activity reported larger reductions in aggression.
The results of the study are preliminary, but promising. Studies with more subjects, adequate control groups, as well as measurements which don't rely on self-report, will be needed to further validate neurofeedback's potential as a treatment for criminal psychopathy. Konicar is conservatively optimistic.
"This study demonstrates improvements on the neurophysiological, behavioral and subjective level in severe psychopathic offenders after SCP-neurofeedback training and could constitute a novel neurobiologically-based treatment for a seemingly change-resistant group of criminal psychopaths."
Source: Konicar, L. et al. Brain self-regulation in criminal psychopaths. Sci. Rep. 5, 9426; DOI:10.1038/srep09426 (2015).
(Top Image: Silence of the Lambs)