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Scientists identified genetic factors of psychopathy and pointed out a potential new treatment

Posted September 4, 2019

Psychopathy – a personality disorder, characterized by extremely antisocial behaviour, radical egoism, lack of empathy and sometimes even traits of cruelty. Psychopathy causes a great deal of personal and social problems and although it’s been researched for decades, no one knows the exact causes of it.

Now scientists  the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Helsinki and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say that psychopathy may be stemming from genes that have previously been associated with autism.

Psychopathy is strongly correlated with crime, violence, and antisocial behavior – only 1 % of general population are psychopaths, but 10-30 % of criminal prisoners are. Image credit: Bart Everson via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Psychopathy is a dangerous condition to society. Although it is relatively rare with only 1 % of population affected by it, as much as 10-30 % of incarcerated criminal offenders are psychopaths. Scientists noticed long time ago that psychopathy is hereditary, but its genetic basis hasn’t been researched that much. Not Finnish and Swedish scientists conducted a study with stem cell technology to analyse the expression of genes and proteins associated with this condition. Scientists took skin cells from psychopathic violent offenders and healthy controls, turned them into stem cells and looked for genetic abnormalities associated exclusively with psychopathy.

Scientists found that psychopathy can be linked to abnormalities in the expression of genes and immune-response-related molecular pathways. For example, RPL10P9 and ZNF132 genes were upregulated and CDH5 and OPRD1 were downregulated. These genetic alterations are also associated with autism. In this case, these abnormalities explained 30–92% of the variance of psychopathic symptoms. Also, scientists noticed that expression of proteins related to glucose metabolism and the opioid system were also altered in cases of psychopathy.

Multiple previous studies have shown that abnormal opioid system function is a factor underlying psychopathy and this one confirms it. We cannot alter the genetic variations associated with psychopathy, but we can improve the opioid system function. For example, long-lasting injections of naltrexone or buprenorphine could balance the opioid system and reduce the symptoms of psychopathy. Of course, more studies are needed to see how well that would work and how this treatment could be fine-tuned for individual cases.

Psychopathy is a very serious condition. Not only people who have it suffer from it, but society may be a victim too. Finding a better treatment and encouraging people to stick to the treatment regime would benefit everyone.


Source: University of Helsinki

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