Amygdala Response to Preattentive Masked Fear in Children With Conduct Problems: The Role of Callous-Unemotional Traits

Essi Viding, Catherine L. Sebastian, Mark R. Dadds, Patricia L. Lockwood, Charlotte A.M. Cecil, Stephane A. De Brito, Eamon J. McCrory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: In children with conduct problems, high levels of callous-unemotional
traits are associated with amygdala hypoactivity to consciously perceived fear,
while low levels of callous-unemotional traits may be associated with amygdala
hyperactivity. Behavioral data suggest that fear processing deficits in children with
high callous-unemotional traits may extend to stimuli presented below conscious
awareness (preattentively). The authors investigated the neural basis of this effect. Amygdala involvement was predicted on the basis of its role in preattentive affective processing in healthy adults and its dysfunction in previous studies of conduct problems.

Method: Functional MRI was used to measure neural responses to fearful and calm faces presented preattentively (for 17ms followed by backward masking) in boys with conduct problems and high callous-unemotional traits (N=15), conduct problems and low callous-unemotional traits (N=15), and typically developing comparison boys (N=16). Amygdala response to fearful and calm faces was predicted to differentiate groups, with the greatest response in boys with conduct problems and low callous-unemotional traits and the lowest in boys with conduct problems and high callous-unemotional traits.

Results: In the right amygdala, a greater amygdala response was seen in boys
with conduct problems and low callousunemotional traits than in those with high
callous-unemotional traits. The findings were not explained by symptom levels of
conduct disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, or depression.

Conclusions: These data demonstrate differential amygdala activity to preattentively presented fear in children with conduct problems grouped by callous-unemotional traits, with high levels associated with lower amygdala reactivity. The study’s findings complement increasing evidence suggesting that callousunemotional traits are an important specifier in the classification of children
with conduct problems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1109-1116
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2012

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