Affective startle potentiation differentiates primary and secondary variants of juvenile psychopathy

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Background: Individuals with psychopathic traits demonstrate an attenuated emotional response to aversive stimuli. However, recent evidence suggests heterogeneity in emotional reactivity among individuals with psychopathic or callous-unemotional (CU) traits, the emotional detachment dimension of psychopathy. We hypothesize that primary variants of psychopathy will respond with blunted affect to negatively valenced stimuli, whereas individuals marked with histories of childhood trauma/maltreatment exposure, known as secondary variants, will display heightened emotional reactivity. To test this hypothesis, the present study examined fear-potentiated startle between psychopathy variants while viewing aversive, pleasant, and neutral scenes. Method: 238 incarcerated adolescent (M age = 16.8, SD = 1.11 years) boys completed a picture-startle paradigm and self-report questionnaires assessing CU traits, antisocial-aggressive behavior, and maltreatment. Results: Latent profile analyses identified four classes; primary variants (high CU traits, high aggression, low maltreatment; n = 46), secondary variants (high CU traits, high aggression, high maltreatment; n = 42), and two nonpsychopathic groups differentiated on maltreatment experience (n = 148). Findings from an ANOVA comparing identified groups on startle amplitude difference scores (i.e., aversive-neutral) suggested a main effect for group, F(3,196)=8.91, p<.001, η2 = .12. Primary variants of juvenile psychopathy displayed reduced startle potentiation to aversive images (threat and victim scenes), whereas secondary variants distinguished by high levels of childhood maltreatment did not. Conclusions: Findings add to a rapidly growing body of literature supporting the possibility of multiple developmental pathways to psychopathy (i.e., equifinality), and extend it by finding support for divergent potential biomarkers between primary and secondary psychopathy variants.
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Archival date: 2016-08-25
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