Both externalizing behavior and callous-unemotional (CU) traits in youth are precursors to later criminal offending in adulthood. It is posited that disruptions in reward and punishment processes may engender problematic behavior, such that CU traits and externalizing behavior may be linked to a dominant reward response style (e.g., heightened responsivity to rewards) and deficient punishment-processing. However, prior research has generated mixed findings and work examining both the sole and joint contribution of CU traits and externalizing problems related to functional brain alterations is lacking. In this pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we measured externalizing behavior and CU traits in a community sample of adolescents (n = 29) and examined their impacts on brain activity associated with anticipation and receipt of reward and punishment using the Modified Monetary Incentive Delay task. We found that CU traits were associated with greater activation of the ventral striatum (VST) during reward anticipation. However, this effect became non-significant after controlling for externalizing behavior, indicating substantial overlap between the CU and externalizing measures in explaining VST activation when anticipating reward. In addition, externalizing behavior (but not CU) was significantly negatively associated with amygdala activation during punishment receipt, even after controlling for CU traits. The present findings extend previous evidence of hyper-responsivity to reward and hypo-responsivity to punishment in relation to psychopathic traits and antisocial behavior to non-clinical, non-incarcerated youths.
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