Dr. Kent Kiehl Dabbles in Psychopathology

in Article
March 8th, 2011

Crime is a trillion-dollar-a-year problem with the average psychopath convicted of four violent crimes by the age of forty. Although psychopathy is one of the least-funded areas of psychology, Dr. Kent Kiehl, one of the leading investigators in this field, hopes to defy this standard.

In January 2007, he requested to have a portable fMRI brought into the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility; the first fMRI  ever brought into a prison. Kiehl hopes to test his theory that psychopathology is caused by a defect in the paralimbic system, which is involved in processing emotion, inhibition, and attention control.

Kiehl stated, “If you could target the brain region involved, then maybe you could find a drug that treats that region [and]… if you could treat just five percent of them, that would be a Nobel Prize right there.”

Psychopaths are thought to encompass 1% of the human population. This would mean that there are one million psychopaths in the United States today (many of which are in prison).

The volunteer rate among  prisoners is about 90%. Inmates are paid a dollar an hour for their services, and they also receive a free clinical examination and a picture of their brain. Dr. Kiehl detected previously undetected tumors in about five percent of the volunteers.

To distinguish psychopaths from the rest of the inmate population, Kiehl uses the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL-R, a twenty-item diagnostic instrument created by Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist. Interestingly enough, Kiehl was taught to use the checklist by Hare himself.

The interviewer spends several hours with each volunteer inmate, and  “scores” the subject on each of the twenty items—parasitic life style, pathological lying, conning, proneness to boredom, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, poor impulse control, promiscuity, irresponsibility, record of juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility, among other tendencies. Scores range between zero and 2. A score of thirty or higher on this scale is considered by most psychologists to be a psychopath.

To date, Kiehl has scanned ninety adult psychopathic brains with the portable scanner. The data, he says, confirm his hypothesis that psychopathy corresponds to a deficit in the paralimbic region.

Kiehl has taken his portable scanner to a youth correctional facility also in New Mexico, and plans to be the first to scan female psychopaths. He hopes that the more data he collects the closer researchers can get to a treatment.

But Kiehl can foresee many other applications for the portable scanner. He suggests that,“You could take it to Iraq, scan guys just before they go into battle, and then scan them when they come off the battlefield, and use that data to study post-traumatic stress syndrome.”  The only downfall to this revolutionary machine is that it unfortunately costs $500 an hour to run.


– Suffering Souls from The New Yorker

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