Cortisol Linked to Antisocial Behaviors

Lower levels of cortisol have been linked to antisocial behavior among male adolescents.

Lower levels of cortisol, also commonly referred to as the "stress hormone," have been linked to antisocial behavior among male adolescents. University of Cambridge researchers found that teenagers exhibiting strong antisocial tendencies did not show the same cortisol increase when faced with stressful situations, as those without antisocial tendencies would. Cortisol levels naturally increase during stressful situations, such as while taking a test, undergoing surgery, or speaking in public. Cortisol “enhances memory formation and is though to make people behave more cautiously and to help them regulate their emotions, particularly their temper and violent impulses.” Some researchers have proposed that we should view antisocial behaviors as a form of mental illness in people whose systems are incapable of naturally producing sufficient cortisol, as the behaviors are caused by physiological symptoms involving a chemical imbalance.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, lead researchers Dr. Graeme Fairchild and Professor Ian Goodyer tested recruited participants by collecting their saliva for several days in both stressful and non-stressful environments to examine the stress-induced changes in cortisol levels. “While the average adolescents showed large increases in the amount of cortisol during the frustrating situation, cortisol levels actually went down in those with severe antisocial behaviour.”

The discovery that people may be more vulnerable to antisocial behaviors due to hormonal or biological causes, in the same way some people are more vulnerable to depression or anxiety, has led researchers to speculate that there may be drug interventions that could be developed to curb antisocial tendencies.

Dr. Fairchild predicted that if “we can figure out precisely what underlies the inability to show a normal stress response, we may be able to design new treatments for severe behavior problems. We may also be able to create targeted interventions for those at higher risk.”

An estimated 3% of males and 1% of females in the general US population are believed to qualify under the DSM-IV-TR criteria as having antisocial personality disorder.

For more information on antisocial personality disorders, click here.