Neuroanatomy of complex social emotion dysregulation in adolescent offenders


Social emotions require the correct integration of emotional, cognitive, and social processes and are critical for complex social interactions. Adolescent criminal offenders (AOs) show abnormalities in the experience of basic emotions. However, most research has focused solely on basic emotions, neglecting complex social emotions that could be critical for social reintegration. The purpose of this study was to investigate the behavioral and neural correlates of social emotions (envy and Schadenfreude) in AOs. We explored the experience of complex social emotions, as well as their anatomical correlates, in AOs (n = 19) and a nonoffenders control group (NOs, n = 20). Additionally, we assessed the relationship between social emotions, executive functions (EFs), and fluid intelligence (FI). Structural brain imaging was obtained in all participants. The results showed that AOs had significantly lower envy and Schadenfreude ratings and exhibited lower performance in EFs compared with NOs. The measurement of EFs relied on the INECO frontal screening (IFS). Experiencing fewer social emotions was associated with diminished EFs but not with FI. Moreover, in AOs, reduced levels of envy and Schadenfreude were linked with reduced gray matter volumes in regions subserving mentalizing abilities (inferior parietal lobe and precuneus) and socioemotional processing (inferior and middle temporal regions), as well as key hubs of the executive frontoparietal network (inferior parietal lobule, orbital and rectus gyri). Additional analysis on the AOs revealed no associations between the type of crime and our variables of interest (EFs, FI and social emotions). Our findings are the first to provide evidence on abnormalities in the experience of social emotions in AOs that are associated with neurocognitive markers of social cognition and EFs. Understanding social emotions and their abnormalities (under-experience) as complex intertwined processes may have important future translational implications, including risk prediction for social adaptation/reintegration, sociocognitive targeted interventions, and skill training for social emotions in vulnerable populations.

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Data Availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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DFO, SB, HSG, CI, and AI conceived and designed the project, the analysis, contributed analysis tools, performed the analysis, and participated in the drafting of the final manuscript. MP and CI collected the data. DFO, SB, MPS, and AI conducted data analysis and interpretation, and participated in the drafting of the final manuscript. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript.

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AI is partially supported by CONICET, ANID/FONDAP (15150012), ANID/Fondecyt/Regular 1210195, PICT (2017-1818 and 2017-1820).

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Correspondence to Sandra Baez.

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Franco-O’Byrne, D., Ibáñez, A., Santamaría-García, H. et al. Neuroanatomy of complex social emotion dysregulation in adolescent offenders. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci (2021).

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  • Adolescent offenders
  • Envy
  • Schadenfreude
  • Executive functions
  • Brain structural correlates