Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Yu Gao

Committee Members

Yoko Nomura

Anjali Krishnan

Wei Wang

Duke A. Shereen

Subject Categories

Child Psychology | Developmental Psychology | Other Neuroscience and Neurobiology


antisocial behavior, psychopathy, neuroimaging, prenatal stress, adversity, biosocial


Early life presence of antisocial behavior (e.g., aggression/delinquency) and psychopathic/callous-unemotional (CU) traits (lacking empathy/remorse, shallow affect) are precursors to juvenile crime and criminal offending in adulthood. Etiological research on antisocial/CU tendencies has implicated both neurobiological (e.g., alterations in brain function and structure) and environmental (social adversity, prenatal stress) underpinnings. It has been proposed that reward and punishment processing deficits may induce problematic traits and behavior, such that antisocial/CU tendencies may be linked to hypersensitivity to rewards and hyposensitivity to punishment. Studies in this area have generated inconsistent findings and focused primarily on adult and clinical samples, leaving youth and community samples underexplored. Burgeoning evidence has supported a biosocial basis of antisocial/CU tendencies – neurobiological deficits combine with psychosocial environmental risks to influence its development. Even fewer studies have investigated the joint effects of brain correlates and psychosocial environmental influence. This dissertation evaluated the neural and environmental bases of externalizing and CU tendencies. Adolescents from the community (n = 52, age range = 12-16) and their caregivers came for a 2 part in-person study. At Brooklyn College, caregivers completed assessments on their child’s externalizing behavior (Child Behavior Checklist; Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1991) and CU traits (Inventory of Callous Unemotional Traits; Frick, 2004). Information on social adversity and prenatal maternal stress were collected 4 years prior at enrollment. Adolescents were then invited to the City University of New York Advanced Science Research Center for functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). During the fMRI scan, participants completed the modified version of the Monetary Incentive Delay Task to assess neural activity to rewards and punishments. The overall aims of this study are trifold: (1) to evaluate whether neural correlates in youth are implicated in the development of antisocial behavior and CU traits (Aims 1 and 2); (2) to determine if environmental factors are linked to externalizing/CU outcomes and aberrant neural correlates (Aim 3); and (3) to explore if environmental risks will moderate the relationship between neural correlates and antisocial/CU tendencies (Aim 4). In Aim1, we found that CU traits and externalizing behavior were negatively associated with neural activation in the ventral striatum (VST) in response to reward anticipation. A similar association was found between CU traits and amygdala responses during reward anticipation. In Aim 2, we found positive associations between externalizing behaviors and gray matter volume (GMV) in the caudate/putamen, and a negative association between callousness and GMV in the amygdala. In Aim 3, we found a marginally significant effect of prenatal maternal stress on unemotional traits (but not other subscales or externalizing outcomes). There were no significant associations between environmental and brain variables. In Aim 4, we found high social adversity and heightened neural response to reward anticipation in the amygdala predicted higher levels of uncaring and CU total scores. High social adversity also combined with lower response in the amygdala to punishment anticipation to predict higher levels of delinquency. Higher prenatal maternal stress in combination with lower response in the VST during both reward and punishment anticipation was associated with higher levels of CU traits. The overarching objective of this study is to achieve a more comprehensive understanding on the etiological basis of antisocial/CU tendencies by incorporating neurobiological and environmental processes, fostering early identification and prevention/intervention of disruptive behavioral disorders among those with CU traits.