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The emergence of callous unemotional (CU) traits, and associated externalizing behaviors, is believed to reflect underlying dysfunction in the amygdala. Studies of adults with CU traits or psychopathy have linked characteristic patterns of amygdala dysfunction to reduced amygdala volume, but studies in youths have not thus far found evidence of similar amygdala volume reductions. The current study examined the association between CU traits and amygdala volume by modeling CU traits and externalizing behavior as independent continuous variables, and explored the relative contributions of callous, uncaring, and unemotional traits.
CU traits and externalizing behavior problems were assessed in 148 youths using the Inventory of Callous Unemotional Traits (ICU) and the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). For a subset of participants (n = 93), high-resolution T1-weighted images were collected and volume estimates for the amygdala were extracted.
Analyses revealed that CU traits were associated with increased externalizing behaviors and decreased bilateral amygdala volume. These results were driven by the callous and uncaring sub-factors of CU traits, with unemotional traits unrelated to either externalizing behaviors or amygdala volume. Results persisted after accounting for covariation between CU traits and externalizing behaviors. Bootstrap mediation analyses indicated that CU traits mediated the relationship between reduced amygdala volume and externalizing severity.
These findings provide evidence that callous-uncaring traits account for reduced amygdala volume among youths with conduct problems. These findings provide a framework for further investigation of abnormal amygdala development as a key causal pathway for the development of callous-uncaring traits and conduct problems.