The brain scan study suggests that conduct disorder, a problem recognised by psychiatrists, is more than just a description of natural teenage unruliness.
Scientists compared the thickness of different brain regions in groups of young people, some of whom had been diagnosed with conduct disorder.
They found evidence of altered brain structure associated with the condition, which is characterised by persistent behavioural problems including aggression, violence, lying, stealing, and weapon use.
“Early starters” with childhood-onset conduct disorder and those diagnosed later in life during adolescence displayed different brain development patterns.
Dr Graeme Fairchild, from the University of Southampton’s Department of Psychology, said: “The differences that we see between healthy teenagers and those with both forms of conduct disorders show that most of the brain is involved, but particularly the frontal and temporal regions of the brain.
“This provides extremely compelling evidence that conduct disorder is a real psychiatric disorder and not, as some experts maintain, just an exaggerated form of teenage rebellion.
“More research is now needed to investigate how to use these results to help these young people clinically and to examine the factors leading to this abnormal pattern of brain development, such as exposure to early adversity.”
The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging scans to conduct the study.
* The results are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry