New research on the origins of antisocial behaviour, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, suggests that early-onset antisocial behaviour in children with psychopathic tendencies is largely inherited.
The findings are the result of extensive research funded by the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health and the Home Office, and carried out by Dr. Essi Viding of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, within the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.
Past research has shown that children with early-onset antisocial behaviour show problem behaviours for a variety of different reasons. One warning sign of vulnerability for antisocial behaviour is psychopathic tendencies, i.e. lack of empathy and remorse. Dr Viding's research looked into the factors that contribute to antisocial behaviour in children with and without psychopathic tendencies. By studying sets of 7-year-old twins, Dr. Viding and her colleagues were able to pinpoint to what extent antisocial behaviour in these two groups was caused by genetic and/or environmental risk factors.
A sample of 3687 twin pairs formed the starting point for this research. Teacher ratings for antisocial behaviour and psychopathic tendencies (i.e. lack of empathy and remorse) were used to classify the twins. Those who were in the top 10% of the sample for antisocial behaviour were separated into two groups - those with and without psychopathic tendencies.
Following analysis, the results showed that, in children with psychopathic tendencies, antisocial behaviour was strongly inherited. In contrast, the antisocial behaviour of children who did not have psychopathic tendencies was mainly influenced by environmental factors. These findings are in line with previous research showing that children with psychopathic tendencies are at risk to continue their antisocial behaviour and are often resistant to traditional forms of intervention.
Dr Essi Viding says: "Our research has important implications. The discovery that psychopathic tendencies are strongly heritable suggests that we need to get help for these youngsters early on. Any behaviour is influenced by multiple genes and an unlucky combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder.
"However, strong heritability does not mean that nothing can be done. Children are open to protective environmental influences early in life and these influences can buffer the effect of genetic vulnerability. By combining cognitive neuroscience and molecular genetic research, we are hoping to uncover how genetic vulnerability might influence early brain development. This can in turn help us to develop methods of prevention and intervention to suit each particular child. It means that we might be able to treat antisocial behaviour with psychopathic tendencies as successfully as other emotional disorders."