New research on the origins of antisocial behaviour, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, suggests that early-onset antisocial behaviour in children with psychopathic tendencies is largely inherited.

The findings are the result of extensive research funded by the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health and the Home Office, and carried out by Dr. Essi Viding of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, within the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.

Past research has shown that children with early-onset antisocial behaviour show problem behaviours for a variety of different reasons. One warning sign of vulnerability for antisocial behaviour is psychopathic tendencies, i.e. lack of empathy and remorse. Dr Viding's research looked into the factors that contribute to antisocial behaviour in children with and without psychopathic tendencies. By studying sets of 7-year-old twins, Dr. Viding and her colleagues were able to pinpoint to what extent antisocial behaviour in these two groups was caused by genetic and/or environmental risk factors.

A sample of 3687 twin pairs formed the starting point for this research. Teacher ratings for antisocial behaviour and psychopathic tendencies (i.e. lack of empathy and remorse) were used to classify the twins. Those who were in the top 10% of the sample for antisocial behaviour were separated into two groups - those with and without psychopathic tendencies.

Following analysis, the results showed that, in children with psychopathic tendencies, antisocial behaviour was strongly inherited. In contrast, the antisocial behaviour of children who did not have psychopathic tendencies was mainly influenced by environmental factors. These findings are in line with previous research showing that children with psychopathic tendencies are at risk to continue their antisocial behaviour and are often resistant to traditional forms of intervention.

Dr Essi Viding says: "Our research has important implications. The discovery that psychopathic tendencies are strongly heritable suggests that we need to get help for these youngsters early on. Any behaviour is influenced by multiple genes and an unlucky combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder.

"However, strong heritability does not mean that nothing can be done. Children are open to protective environmental influences early in life and these influences can buffer the effect of genetic vulnerability. By combining cognitive neuroscience and molecular genetic research, we are hoping to uncover how genetic vulnerability might influence early brain development. This can in turn help us to develop methods of prevention and intervention to suit each particular child. It means that we might be able to treat antisocial behaviour with psychopathic tendencies as successfully as other emotional disorders."

The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a national organisation funded by the UK tax-payer. Its business is medical research aimed at improving human health; everyone stands to benefit from the outputs. The research it supports and the scientists it trains meet the needs of the health services, the pharmaceutical and other health-related industries and the academic world. MRC has funded work which has led to some of the most significant discoveries and achievements in medicine in the UK. About half of the MRC's expenditure of £500 million is invested in its 40 Institutes, Units and Centres. The remaining half goes in the form of grant support and training awards to individuals and teams in universities and medical schools.

The Department of Health's Forensic Mental Health Research and Development Programme supports the evidence base for the provision of services for mentally disordered offenders by commissioning research targeted on policy priorities. It also builds research capacity through research training awards and a response mode scheme.

King's College London is one of the oldest and largest colleges of the University of London with 13,800 undergraduate students and some 5,400 postgraduates in ten schools of study. The College had 24 of its subject-areas awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level. The recent Institutional Audit, carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency, received an excellent result. King's is a member of the Russell Group, a coalition of the UK's major research-based universities.

The Institute of Psychiatry is part of King's College London and closely affiliated to the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. The Institute is a world-renowned centre for treatment, research and training in psychiatry and mental health. The organisation is involved in pioneering new and improved ways of understanding and treating mental illness and brain disease. Its wide-ranging field of work includes depression, eating disorders, brain imaging, genetics and psychosis. The Institute was one of only two organisations in the field of psychiatry which received a five star rating in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) conducted by the UK's higher education funding councils.

Evidence for substantial genetic risk for psychopathy in 7-year-olds (Essi Viding, R. James R. Blair, Terrie E. Moffitt, Robert Plomin) is published in the June 2005 issue of The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry is internationally recognised to be the leading journal covering both child and adolescent psychology and psychiatry. Articles published include experimental and developmental studies, especially those relating to developmental psychopathology and the developmental disorders. The Journal is available online.

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry is published on behalf of The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health by Blackwell Publishing .