The interplay of attention and emotion: Top-down attention modulates amygdala activation in psychopathy

Psychopathic behavior has long been attributed to a fundamental deficit in fear that arises from impaired amygdala function. Growing evidence demonstrates that fear potentiated startle (FPS) and other psychopathy-related deficits are moderated by focus of attention but, to date, no work on adult psychopathy has examined attentional modulation of the amygdala, or concomitant recruitment of relevant attention-related circuitry. Consistent with previous FPS findings, here we report that psychopathy-related differences in amygdala activation appear and disappear as a function of goal-directed attention. Specifically, decreased amygdala activity was observed in psychopathic offenders only when attention was engaged in an alternative goal-relevant task prior to presenting threat-relevant information. Under this condition, psychopaths also exhibited greater activation in selective attention regions of the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) than non-psychopaths, and this increased LPFC activation mediated psychopathy’s association with decreased amygdala activation. In contrast, when explicitly attending to threat, amygdala activation in psychopaths did not differ from non-psychopaths. This pattern of amygdala activation highlights the potential role of LPFC in mediating the failure of psychopathic individuals to process fear and other important information when it is peripheral to the primary focus of goal-directed attention.


Christine Larson
Arielle Baskin-Sommers
Daniel Stout
Nicholas Balderston
Douglas Schultz
John Curtin
Kent Kiehl
Joseph Newman