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Bullies' brains empathize, but with a twist

Adolescents with conduct disorder show greater activity in pain and reward regions of the brain while viewing clips of painful situations

CHICAGO — Seeing a hand slammed in a car door makes most people cringe. But others seem to lack such empathy, which might help explain why some are capable of repeatedly inflicting pain on others.

Now a study suggests that adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder — characterized by physical aggression, bullying and disregard for rules — may have robust rather than blunted reactions to others’ pain. Such adolescents may even get pleasure out of viewing other people in discomfort, Jean Decety of the University of Chicago reported February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Using fMRI, Decety and his colleagues scanned the brains of eight adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder and eight adolescents without the disorder while showing them video clips of accidental, but painful situations.

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