Adolescents with conduct problems and low callous-unemotional traits are characterised by high levels of reactive aggression. Prior studies suggest that they can have exaggerated neural and behavioural responses to negative emotional stimuli, accompanied by compromised affect regulation and atypical engagement of prefrontal areas during cognitive control. This pattern may in part explain their symptoms. Clarifying how neurocognitive responses to negative emotional stimuli can be modulated in this group has potential translational relevance. We present fMRI data from a cognitive conflict task in which the requirement to visually scan emotional (vs. calm) faces was held constant across low and high levels of cognitive conflict. Participants were 17 adolescent males with conduct problems and low levels of callous-unemotional traits (CP/LCU); 17 adolescents with conduct problems and high levels of callous-unemotional traits (CP/HCU, who typically show blunted reactivity to fear), and 18 typically developing controls (age range 10-16). Control participants showed typical attenuation of amygdala response to fear relative to calm faces under high (relative to low) conflict, replicating previous findings in a healthy adult sample. In contrast, children with CP/LCU showed a reduced (left amygdala) or reversed (right amygdala) attenuation effect under high cognitive conflict conditions. Children with CP/HCU did not differ from controls. Findings suggest atypical modulation of amygdala response as a function of task demands, and raise the possibility that those with CP/LCU are unable to implement typical regulation of amygdala response when cognitive task demands are high.
© 2021, C. Sebastian, J. Stafford, E. McCrory, A. Sethi, S. De Brito, P. Lockwood, E. Viding. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/