Differentiating emotional processing and attention in psychopathy with functional neuroimaging

Nathaniel E. Anderson, Vaughn R. Steele, J. Michael Maurer, Vikram Rao, Michael R. Koenigs, Jean Decety, David S. Kosson, Vince D. Calhoun, Kent A. Kiehl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Individuals with psychopathy are often characterized by emotional processing deficits, and recent research has examined the specific contexts and cognitive mechanisms that underlie these abnormalities. Some evidence suggests that abnormal features of attention are fundamental to emotional deficits in persons with psychopathy, but few studies have demonstrated the neural underpinnings responsible for such effects. Here, we use functional neuroimaging to examine attention–emotion interactions among incarcerated individuals (n = 120) evaluated for psychopathic traits using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (PCL-R). Using a task designed to manipulate attention to emotional features of visual stimuli, we demonstrate effects representing implicit emotional processing, explicit emotional processing, attention-facilitated emotional processing, and vigilance for emotional content. Results confirm the importance of considering mechanisms of attention when evaluating emotional processing differences related to psychopathic traits. The affective-interpersonal features of psychopathy (PCL-R Factor 1) were associated with relatively lower emotion-dependent augmentation of activity in visual processing areas during implicit emotional processing, while antisocial-lifestyle features (PCL-R Factor 2) were associated with elevated activity in the amygdala and related salience network regions. During explicit emotional processing, psychopathic traits were associated with upregulation in the medial prefrontal cortex, insula, and superior frontal regions. Isolating the impact of explicit attention to emotional content, only Factor 1 was related to upregulation of activity in the visual processing stream, which was accompanied by increased activity in the angular gyrus. These effects highlight some important mechanisms underlying abnormal features of attention and emotional processing that accompany psychopathic traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)491-515
Number of pages25
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017


  • Attention
  • Emotion
  • FMRI
  • Psychopathy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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