Reduced neural responses to vocal fear: a potential biomarker for callous-uncaring traits in early childhood

Caroline P. Hoyniak, John E. Bates, Isaac T. Petersen, Chung Lin Yang, Isabelle Darcy, Nathalie M.G. Fontaine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Objective: Callous-unemotional (CU) traits are characterized by a lack of guilt and empathy, and low responsiveness to distress and fear in others. Children with CU traits are at-risk for engaging in early and persistent conduct problems. Individuals showing CU traits have been shown to have reduced neural responses to others’ distress (e.g., fear). However, the neural components of distress responses in children with CU traits have not been investigated in early childhood. In the current study, we examined neural responses that underlie the processing of emotionally valenced vocal stimuli using the event-related potential technique in a group of preschoolers. Method: Participants between 2 and 5 years old took part in an auditory oddball task containing English-based pseudowords spoken with either a fearful, happy, or a neutral prosody while electroencephalography data were collected. The mismatch negativity (MMN) component, an index of the automatic detection of deviant stimuli within a series of stimuli, was examined in association with two dimensions of CU traits (i.e., callousness-uncaring and unemotional dimensions) reported by primary caregivers. Results: Findings suggest that the callousness-uncaring dimension of CU traits in early childhood is associated with reduced responses to fearful vocal stimuli. Conclusions: Reduced neural responses to vocal fear could be a biomarker for callous-uncaring traits in early childhood. These findings are relevant for clinicians and researchers attempting to identify risk factors for early callous-uncaring traits.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12608
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2018


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