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Is this a new treatment for adult criminal psychopaths? 

Monday, May 11, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

evil psychopathsCriminal psychopaths are a common topic we write about here. They are notoriously difficult to treat, but are so disturbing they make for fascinating study (and hopefully reading). Some say they are not treatable. They are highly likely to reoffend after incarceration and prison is neither a deterrent nor a punishment for many of them. So to see a research article on an actual treatment for the adult psychopath is noteworthy.

These researchers recruited 14 criminal psychopaths with long and very violent histories who were serving long-term sentences in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations in Germany to take part in a neurofeedback training program. Neurofeedback involves hooking a person up to an EEG machine to monitor brain activity. The brain activity is displayed on a computer screen as a graphical object and the person involved attempts to move the graphical display by controlling their brain activity—and they are rewarded for so doing, as in a video game.

So the psychopaths had 25 training sessions (each about an hour-long) in neurofeedback spread out over about 3 months and afterwards, they demonstrated “improved control” over their brain activity and reported (in questionnaire completion) having “reduced levels of impulsivity and aggression”. Those with the most “improved control” reported larger reductions in their aggression.

The researchers say that they will need to do more research but these criminal psychopaths were able to improve their brain activity control and reported a decrease in the impulsivity and aggression that varied depending on how much they improved in their ability to control brain activity. I guess it’s comforting that they report lower aggression, but I’m not sure I’d accept the word of a psychopath on that. The researchers think it would be good to have outcome measures that were not reliant on self-reports from severely violent psychopaths and we would agree. Very, very strongly…

Let’s consider the life of the severe criminal psychopath serving a “long term sentence in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations”. They must get very bored and this research presents an opportunity to have 25 hours over the course of three months away from their highly restricted routine. The sample is very small (only 14) and while they did improve in their ability to control their brain activity on an EEG monitor, that makes them completely unremarkable. It isn’t a terribly hard thing to do, it simply requires an effort. And they really have little else to do.

It’s an interesting line of inquiry though and we’ll watch for more on this one. At this point though, it is likely interesting but meaningless in the overall question of what we do with the severely violent criminal psychopath.

Konicar L, Veit R, Eisenbarth H, Barth B, Tonin P, Strehl U, & Birbaumer N (2015). Brain self-regulation in criminal psychopaths. Scientific reports, 5 PMID: 25800672

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