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Brain scans by scientists at Cambridge University have highlighted “striking” structural differences between the brains of young men diagnosed with anti-social behavioral problems and those of their better-behaved peers, writes Ian Sample at The Guardian.

“But while the images show how the two groups of brains differ on average, the scans cannot be used to identify individuals with behavioural issues, nor pinpoint specific developmental glitches that underpin antisocial behaviour,” Sample writes.

Led by Luca Passamonti, a neurologist at Cambridge, the researchers scanned the brains of 58 young men aged 16 to 21 who had been diagnosed with conduct disorder, defined by persistent problems that ranged from aggressive and destructive behaviour, to lying and stealing, carrying weapons or staying out all night.

When compared with brain scans from 25 healthy men of the same age, the scientists noticed clear differences. Those diagnosed with conduct disorder before the age of 10 had similar variations in the thickness of the brain’s cortex. “It may be that problems they experience in childhood affect and delay the way the cortex is developing,” said Passamonti.

But the brains of men diagnosed with behavioural problems in adolescence differed in another way. Scans on them showed fewer similarities in cortical thickness than were seen in the healthy men. That, Passamonti speculates, may arise when normal brain maturation, such as the “pruning” of neurons and the connections between them, goes awry.

The findings were so striking, Passamonti said, that they set out to check them in a separate group of young men in Southampton, using a difference machine. The images – from 37 young men with behavioural problems and 32 healthy men without – found the same changes in brain structure, according to a report in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Brain scans alone cannot identify the causes of behavioral problems, Sample continues. “More useful will be long-running studies that follow children from a very young age, to understand how their genetics, the environment they are brought up in, and factors such as drug use, affect their behaviour.”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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