Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Neural correlates of error-related learning deficits in individuals with psychopathy

A. K. L. von Borriesa1a2 c1, I. A. Brazila2a3, B. H. Bultena2, J. K. Buitelaara1, R. J. Verkesa1a2 and E. R. A. de Bruijna3

a1 Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Department of Psychiatry, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

a2 Pompestichting, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

a3 Radboud University Nijmegen, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Nijmegen, The Netherlands


Background Psychopathy (PP) is associated with a performance deficit in a variety of stimulus–response and stimulus–reinforcement learning paradigms. We tested the hypothesis that failures in error monitoring underlie these learning deficits.

Method We measured electrophysiological correlates of error monitoring [error-related negativity (ERN)] during a probabilistic learning task in individuals with PP (n=13) and healthy matched control subjects (n=18). The task consisted of three graded learning conditions in which the amount of learning was manipulated by varying the degree to which the response was predictive of the value of the feedback (50, 80 and 100%).

Results Behaviourally, we found impaired learning and diminished accuracy in the group of individuals with PP. Amplitudes of the response ERN (rERN) were reduced. No differences in the feedback ERN (fERN) were found.

Conclusions The results are interpreted in terms of a deficit in initial rule learning and subsequent generalization of these rules to new stimuli. Negative feedback is adequately processed at a neural level but this information is not used to improve behaviour on subsequent trials. As learning is degraded, the process of error detection at the moment of the actual response is diminished. Therefore, the current study demonstrates that disturbed error-monitoring processes play a central role in the often reported learning deficits in individuals with PP.

(Received April 27 2009)

(Revised October 16 2009)

(Accepted October 29 2009)

(Online publication December 09 2009)


c1 Address for correspondence: A. K. L. von Borries, M.Sc., Pompekliniek, PO Box 31435, 6503 CK Nijmegen, The Netherlands. (Email: