Paths in Psychopathology

Poor kids with gene variant more likely to become psychopathic

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Children who grow up poor and with a certain variant of a serotonin transporter gene are more likely to exhibit psychopathic behavior, according to a University of Illinois study.

The study is the first to uncover a specific gene tied to psychopathic tendencies in childhood.

Researchers looked at two variants (alleles) of the gene that transports serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep and other functions). The two alleles of the gene had different lengths.

The longer allele produced more of the transporter protein, which researchers suspect results in more serotonin being carried out of the synapse. Interestingly, teens and pre-teen children with the longer alleles for the transporter gene scored higher than other children on psychopathic traits if they also were poor. These children showed less empathy and were more prone to arrogance and deceitfulness.

However, children with long alleles who were more affluent scored low on psychopathic traits, suggesting the longer gene variant is susceptible to environment.

Psychopathic young people are more likely to be apathetic and more callous than their peers, said University of Illinois psychology professor Edelyn Verona, whose graduate student, Naomi Sadeh, led the study. Psychopathic children tend to be less attached to others and are "better at conning and manipulating others," she said.

Psychopathic personalities also tend to be less prone to anxiety and depression, Verona said. Harvard-trained child psychiatrist Dr. Russ Ricci observed that psychopaths have less anxiety and depression because they also have less of a moral core, a conscience, and therefore have difficulty judging right from wrong.

And while the personality may be associated with violent crimes in popular consciousness, most people who commit such crimes are not psychopathic, Verona said. Violent offenders are often highly emotional and impulsive, unlike the detached, methodical psychopath, according to Verona.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 21, 2011
Last Updated:
February 21, 2011