Affective Traits of Psychopathy and the Role of Early Visual Attention: An Electrophysiological Study
Models of affective processing abnormalities in psychopathy have involved both amygdala abnormalities and attentional deficits to peripheral affective information. Neurophysiological bases for the latter are not currently well understood. Often presented as competing explanations for affective traits of psychopathy, these models may instead be compatible, describing different levels of analysis, with the amygdala playing a role in early attention allocation. To explore this possibility, this dissertation was designed to integrate these two areas of the literature by proposing a neurophysiologically-based model of biases in attention to peripheral affective information in psychopathy. This model is centred on the idea that attentional biases seen in psychopathy may result from reduced responsivity of a subcortical thalamus-amygdala circuit that influences the allocation of attention to salient stimuli in the environment during initial stages of processing. Event-related potential (ERP) components that reflect attention allocation during early stages of visual information processing were used to test the hypothesis that individuals high in psychopathic traits would show reduced attention allocation to peripheral information in the form of reduced and/or delayed ERP responses. Explored were the relations between psychopathic personality traits and early ERP responses to simple stimulation of the visual system (Study 1) and to spatially-filtered emotional faces involving implicit versus explicit processing of the stimuli (Study 2). ERP effects related to overall psychopathic trait severity, but also yielded factor-specific ERP response patterns. Study 1 results were consistent with the present hypotheses. Specifically, higher Factor 1 scores (primary, affect-based traits) were associated with reduced attention-related ERP amplitudes in response to a flash stimulus presented peripheral to task performance. Factor 2 severity (secondary antisocial and behavioural traits) was associated with ERP latencies in primary visual cortex. Study 2 also showed somewhat more complex but Factor-specific patterns of early visual processing. Overall, the results were consistent with a reduced responsivity of the thalamo-amygdalar pathway in psychopathy-related individual differences in attention at early stages of visual information processing, both for affective information and simple sensory stimulation. This raises the question of whether such processing differences are a predisposing factor for the development of psychopathic traits.