Increased Levels of Gray Matter in the Brain May Lead to Psychopathic Qualities

Joyce Chen ’23

Figure 1. Some psychopaths are able to blend into society due to heightened levels of gray matter in their ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

Psychopathy is a genetic mutation in the brain that causes individuals to have egotistical tendencies. Such tendencies can lead to unwarranted actions such as crime or even murder, as psychopaths do not keep the wellbeing of others in mind. However, some psychopaths are capable of keeping their dark thoughts hidden very well, thereby having seemingly socially acceptable behavior. Recently, researchers from the Departments of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Kentucky investigated the relationship between heightened levels of gray matter in the brain and psychopathic qualities.

In a study led by doctoral student Emily Lasko, researchers from both universities investigated why certain people with psychopathic qualities are better at controlling their behavior than others. They conducted two studies with the utilization of MRI technology. In the first study, the researchers scanned the brains of 80 adults who were in committed long-term relationships. These adults were then asked to complete a set of questionnaires, called the Short Dark Triad, which contained a total of 27 questions that measured psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. The reactions to the questions were rated along a Likert scale, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). For the second study, the researchers obtained a sample of 64 undergraduate students who were tested for psychopathic traits through an assessment that measured primary and secondary psychopathy. Primary psychopathy resembles the egoistic characteristics of psychopaths, such as selfishness, manipulativeness, and arrogance, while secondary psychopathy is impulsive and antisocial behavior. For both studies, the team discovered that the psychopathic subjects who hid their intentions the best had high levels of gray matter in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a region that regulates emotions such as anger or fear. As such, the researchers concluded that the gray matter density in the brain had a positive correlation with psychopathic qualities: those with higher levels of gray matter could better control their psychopathic tendencies than most other individuals. This creates an advantage for psychopaths to fit into societal expectations of what is socially acceptable. 

The research paved the way for a deeper understanding of the neural anatomy of psychopathic individuals, which allows for specialists to properly diagnose and treat them with medication and rehabilitation. 



  1. E. Lasko, et al., An investigation of the relationship between psychopathy and greater gray matter density in lateral prefrontal cortex. Personality Neuroscience, (2019). doi: 10.31234/
  2. Image retrieved from:

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