Neural responses to affective and cognitive theory of mind in children with conduct problems and varying levels of callous-unemotional traits

Catherine L Sebastian, Eamon J P McCrory, Charlotte A M Cecil, Patricia L Lockwood, Stéphane A De Brito, Nathalie M G Fontaine, Essi Viding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Citations (Scopus)


CONTEXT: Reduced neural responses to others' distress is hypothesized to play a critical role in conduct problems coupled with callous-unemotional traits, whereas increased neural responses to affective stimuli may accompany conduct problems without callous-unemotional traits. Heterogeneity of affective profiles in conduct problems may account for inconsistent neuroimaging findings in this population.

OBJECTIVES: To broaden understanding of neural processing in conduct problems using an affective processing task including an empathy component as well as to explore dimensional contributions of conduct problems symptoms and callous-unemotional traits to variance in affective neural responses.

DESIGN: Case-control study.

SETTING: On-campus neuroimaging facility.

PARTICIPANTS: Thirty-one boys with conduct problems (mean age, 14.34 years) and 16 typically developing control subjects (mean age, 13.51 years) matched for age (range, 10-16 years), IQ, socioeconomic status, handedness, and race/ethnicity. Participants were recruited using screening questionnaires in a community-based volunteer sample.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Functional magnetic resonance imaging of a task contrasting affective and cognitive theory of mind judgments.

RESULTS: Relative to typically developing children, children with conduct problems showed reduced activation in right amygdala and anterior insula for affective vs cognitive theory of mind judgments. Furthermore, in the right amygdala, regression analysis within the conduct-problems group showed suppressor effects between ratings of conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits. Specifically, unique variance associated with conduct problems was positively correlated with amygdala reactivity, whereas unique variance associated with callous-unemotional traits was negatively correlated with amygdala reactivity. These associations were not explained by hyperactivity, depression/anxiety symptoms, or alcohol use ratings.

CONCLUSIONS: Childhood conduct problems are associated with amygdala and anterior insula hypoactivity during a complex affective processing task including an empathy component. Suppressor effects between conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits in the amygdala suggest a potential neural substrate for heterogeneity in affective profiles associated with conduct problems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)814-22
Number of pages9
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2012


  • Adolescent
  • Affect
  • Amygdala
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cerebral Cortex
  • Child
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Empathy
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Theory of Mind
  • Wakefulness


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