Background: Boys with early onset of conduct disorder (CD), most of whom also meet diagnostic criteria of a comorbid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), tend to exhibit high levels of aggression throughout development. While a number of functional neuroimaging studies on emotional processing have been performed in antisocial adults, little is known about how CD children process emotional information.
Method: Functional magnetic resonance imaging data were analyzed in 22 male adolescents aged 12 to 17 years with childhood-onset CD (16 of them with comorbid ADHD) compared to 22 age-matched male healthy controls. In order to consider the likely confounding of results through ADHD comorbidity, we performed a supplementary study including 13 adolescent subjects with pure ADHD who were compared with healthy controls. To challenge emotional processing of stimuli, a passive viewing task was applied, presenting pictures of negative, positive or neutral valence.
Results: When comparing CD/combined disorder patients with healthy controls, we found enhanced left-sided amygdala activation in response to negative pictures as compared to neutral pictures in the patient group. In addition, these boys exhibited no reduced activation in the orbitofrontal, anterior cingulate and insular cortices. By contrast, children with pure ADHD did not show any abnormalities in amygdala activation but showed decreased neural activity in the insula only in response to negative pictures.
Conclusions: Increased rather than reduced amygdala activation found in our study may indicate an enhanced response to environmental cues in adolescents with early-onset CD (most of whom also met the condition of ADHD), and is not consistent with the assumption of a reduced capacity to take note of affective information in the social environment. Further studies with an emphasis on developmental aspects of affect regulation are needed to clarify the relationship between CD and adult personality pathology associated with different modes of persistent antisocial behavior.