September 30, 2008
Antisocial Kids Have Less Cortisol In Stressful Situations

The juvenile delinquent kids going down the wrong path maybe act bad due to endocrine system deficiencies in cortisol production.

A link between reduced levels of the 'stress hormone' cortisol and antisocial behaviour in male adolescents has been discovered by a research team at the University of Cambridge.

Levels of cortisol in the body usually increase when people undergo a stressful experience, such as public speaking, sitting an exam, or having surgery. It enhances memory formation and is thought to make people behave more cautiously and to help them regulate their emotions, particularly their temper and violent impulses.

So suppose we could come up with a nanosensor that measured when some violent guy was about to act aggressively. Imagine combining that with some nanocomputer and a little nanotube network tied to some cells that can be stimulated to excrete cortisol. Implant all that into the body of someone with violent impulses and it should be possible to cut back on their violent outbursts. What do you think? Want safer streets via tech that controls people? We are maybe about 10 years away from being able to do this sort of thing.

I'd like to know which sorts of antisocial kids don't produce as much cortisol. Do some of them lack the ability to see a situation as stressful?

The new research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, shows that adolescents with severe antisocial behaviour do not exhibit the same increase in cortisol levels when under stress as those without antisocial behaviour. These findings suggest that antisocial behaviour, at least in some cases, may be seen as a form of mental illness that is linked to physiological symptoms (involving a chemical imbalance of cortisol in the brain and body).

The scientists, led by Dr Graeme Fairchild and Professor Ian Goodyer, recruited participants for the study from schools, pupil referral units, and the Youth Offending Service. Samples of saliva were collected over several days from the subjects in a non-stressful environment to measure levels of the hormone under resting conditions. The young men then took part in a stressful experiment that was designed to induce frustration. Samples of saliva were taken immediately before, during and after the experiment to track how cortisol changed during stress.

The differences between participants with severe antisocial behaviour and those without were most marked under stressful conditions. While the average adolescents showed large increases in the amount of cortisol during the frustrating situation, cortisol levels actually went down in those with severe antisocial behaviour.

So are these kids this way because of genetic reasons, responses to experiences, or some combination thereof? Maybe the bad kids have become desensitized to stress? Or maybe their ability to get violent in stressful situation was an adaptive advantage for their ancestors and contributing genes got selected for.

Some kids go bad with depressed cortisol levels at age 5. Pity the parents - unless they too have depressed cortisol levels and are terrors.

One other surprise was that the cortisol drops were about the same across all the delinquents, whether they originally became disruptive during childhood or during adolescence.

Although it's already accepted that there is a strong biological component to "early-onset" conduct disorder, which develops around the age of five, the current thinking is that when delinquency develops in teenagers, it's mainly a result of malevolent peer pressure, perhaps combined with lack of supervision at home.

The new research challenges this picture by showing that in both groups, cortisol levels fell a biological rather than peer-led response.

Implanted devices that release cortisol would be like an artificial endocrine system that makes up for underactive adrenal glands.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 September 30 11:15 PM  Brain Violence

Bob Badour said at October 1, 2008 2:26 PM:

Maybe the anti-social kids are raised in abusive homes and are under such chronic stress their adrenal glands just cannot keep up any more.

Xenophon Hendrix said at October 1, 2008 4:24 PM:

I wonder if there are non-antisocial persons who excrete less cortisol in stressful situations. Perhaps they are the folks who remain calm in the face of chaos.

Djoere said at October 2, 2008 3:52 AM:

just a little note on the " a biological rather than peer-led response " remark.
I think one of the important lessons to learn from modern biology is that mind and body are one.
Therefore, peer-pressure and other "social" stimuli may directly influence the levels of cortisol or other molecules in the body.

Tj Green said at October 2, 2008 7:40 AM:

If we simplify it to the fight or flight response, then predators fight, and prey run. For a predator fear and anxiety (perception of fear) is a bad survival strategy, for prey it is a good survival strategy. For our species the best survival strategy is the flight or prey response, because without fear there is no anxiety, and therefore no conscience. Anxiety is something we must have to survive, so if we can remove the unpleasant side effects, like stress, that would be good.

willy noman said at October 3, 2008 8:03 PM:

Cortisol comes from the adrenal cortex, which has no way of knowing when something "sressful" is going on in the outside world unless the brain tells it so. Thus, there are two possible explanations for lower cortisol in the antisocial kids in this experiment: Either the brain said "I'm stressed out" and the adrenal cortex didn't listen, and did not produce more cortisol as required; or the brain never said "I'm stressed out" in the first place. If the former case were true, we would expect antisocial individuals to have a higher rate of Addison's disease, but they absolutely do not. That means the latter case must be true; i.e., the brain never told the adrenal cortex to produce more cortisol. What's my point? The point is that the brain perceives stress, then they tell the adrenal cortices pump out cortisol as a secondary response (via ACTH). That means the delinquents didn't fail to experience stress because they didn't have enough cortisol; it means they didn't experience stress and that's WHY they didn't produce more cortisol. Either the researchers or the reporters interpreting their work put the cart before the horse and placed the pathology in the wrong organ.

Imagine an analogous situation: Stressed-out people sweat more, so galvanometers are connected to a group of normal kids and a group of delinquents who are then asked to perform a frustrating task. The normal kids sweat more, but the delinquents don't. Eureka! A deficiency in perspiration causes antisocial behavior! The problem must be in their sweat glands! Do you see how stupid this is?

Beware of easy answers, and make no mistake: Antisocial behavior is in the brain. Whether you call it biologically based or not, that means it's in a black box.

Randall Parker said at October 3, 2008 10:32 PM:

willy noman,

There are a number of possible explanations for the lower cortisol. One is that the adrenal has receptors that are less sensitive to signals sent to it by the brain. Another is that something else is sending a signal to the adrenals to ignore the stress signal from the brain. Another is that the brain sends a weaker signal. A third is that the brain doesn't feel stress. Another is that the brain feels stress but doesn't decide to even send a stress signal to the adrenal. Still another is that the adrenal lacks the cortisol to release.

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