Persistently naughty children from primary school upwards and their parents should be given professional support to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour further down the line, experts said.
People who engage in antisocial behaviour throughout their lives tend to start acting out earlier on in childhood, which is when they should be given help, authors of a new study said.
Their research, launched on Monday, suggests that the brains of people who engage in lifelong antisocial behaviour may be smaller and structured differently to those without such a history.
MRI scans on adults aged 45 who had persistently engaged in stealing bullying, lying, aggression or violence throughout their lives revealed a thinner cortex and smaller surface area in certain brain regions.
Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at University College London, said the research raises “really important policy questions” on how to change behaviour before it results in crime.
She said it is important this group is not “demonised” but seen as “individuals who need help and compassion” to stop their behaviour becoming entrenched.
Prof Viding told a Science Media Centre briefing: “There is this group of people who exhibit problem behaviours early on and at the moment at least in the UK we don’t have a very good way of catching these people and providing them help early on.
“Clinics don’t really want to see them, they usually come to attention when they are excluded from all school provision and they already have had many years of not being able to participate in mainstream society. And it doesn’t really seem right.”
She continued: “For those who are concerned, we should have something available, and at the moment we don’t have something reliably available, and those sorts of provisions have shrunk in the past 10 years in this country.
“And then for the parents who are not raising the alarm even though they ought to, I think then there is a broader question about ‘what is the social care network around that child that can pick up a child that is very vulnerable before behaviour becomes entrenched, and can provide help?’”
This group is estimated at around 5-10% of Western populations such as the UK, the panel of researchers said.
Support could involve groups for parents of younger children to help them more consistently provide discipline, and work with schools and other agencies when the child is older.
The researchers said the majority of adolescent offenders have a short brush with crime but do not continue displaying antisocial behaviours into adulthood.
This makes them “really good candidates to reform and rehabilitate”, they said.
For those that persist throughout life, underlying structural brain differences in regions linked to goal-directed behaviour, regulating emotions and motivation may play a part.
This group of adults in the study tended to show a pattern of physical violence on top of general antisocial behaviour, ranging from biting other children in their early years to intimate partner violence as an adult.
Terrie Moffitt, Professor of Social Development at King’s College London, said: “I think what we’ve seen with these data is they are actually operating under some handicap at the level of the brain, so I think for me, this changes my conception of the ‘life course persistent’ antisocial individuals now, to thinking of someone who is living life with some level of disability, and coping with that as part of their lifestyle.”
The authors say the study provides the first robust evidence to suggest that underlying neuropsychological differences are linked to antisocial behaviour into and throughout adulthood.
In the study, researchers from the UK, US and New Zealand analysed the brain structures of 672 adults aged 45.
Eighty had lifelong antisocial behaviour, 151 had shown antisocial behaviour only in adolescence and the remainder, 441, had no history of persistent antisocial behaviour.
The first group had a smaller mean cortical surface area and lower mean cortical thickness – which indicate grey matter size – than those who had never engaged in antisocial behaviour.
And the group had reduced surface area in 282 of 360 brain regions, and a thinner cortex in 11, most of which play a part in goal-directed behaviour, regulating emotions and motivation.
But the researchers found no widespread structural brain abnormalities in the group who displayed antisocial behaviour only during adolescence.
The study is published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.