The brains of teenage girls with behavioural disorders are different to those of their peers according to a Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry study.

Their study of more than 40 girls revealed differences in the structure of areas in the brain linked to empathy and emotions.

The researchers also suggest it may be possible to use scans to spot these problems early and offer social or psychological help.

The University of Cambridge's Dr Graeme Fairchild, who worked on the study, said: "It could be possible in the future to use scans [to identify] where a person is at high risk of offending. More help could be given to the family and, in the same way that someone with language impairment receives extra help, help could be given to teach a person to understand emotions - and the emotions of others - better."

"In the US, people are already using brain scans to argue diminished responsibility. I think we're too early in our understanding to really do that, but it is happening.

An estimated five in every 100 teenagers in the UK are classed as having a conduct disorder, a condition which leads people to behave in aggressive and anti-social ways, and which can increase the risk of mental and physical health problems in adulthood.

Rates have risen significantly among adolescent girls in recent years, while levels in males have remained about the same.

In this study, the team found part of the brain called the amygdala was smaller in the brains of male and female teenagers with conduct disorder than in their peers.

Girls with conduct disorder also had less grey matter in an area of the brain called the insula which is linked to emotion and understanding your own emotions.

However the same area was larger in boys with conduct disorder than healthy peers, and researchers are not yet sure why that is the case.

Dr Andy Calder, from the MRC cognition and brain sciences unit, added: "The origins of these changes could be due to being born with a particular brain dysfunction or it could be due to exposure to adverse environments such as a distressing experience early in life that could have an impact on the way the brain develops."

Posted 22/10/2012 by richard.hook@pavpub.com