Largest-Ever Donation for Psychopathy Research Bolsters Georgetown Lab

A group of people look at a computer screen with brain scans shown.
Professor Marsh looks over MRI scans with students in her lab.

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The Laboratory on Social & Affective Neuroscience is the recipient of a $500,000 donation from donor Lisa H. Michael, of Palo Alto, California, the largest private donation ever given for the research of psychopathy. The lab, led by Abigail Marsh, studies both ends of what she calls the ‘caring continuum,’ focusing on both those with extraordinary levels of empathy, such as people who donate kidneys to strangers, and those with deficits of compassion, such as people with psychopathy. 

“This funding will not only spur our research into the root neurological and psychological causes of psychopathy, but expand our outreach for people who want to address their symptoms,” says Marsh, a Professor in the Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience. “I hope this donation will also inspire others in the space to fund research into psychopathy. We need a larger, better-funded research community to fully understand and address this disorder that affects so many.” 

In her research, Marsh explores the intersection of neuroscience and empathy, describing the psychological frameworks that underpin how humans relate to others. Her lab conducts brain MRIs and behavioral tests on individuals at either end of the caring continuum. 

“I’m interested in the origins of empathy, compassion and care in humans,” Marsh explains. “Psychopathy is a constellation of personality traits – at the core of which is a lack of care and compassion for other people.”

Historical Hurdles 

Due to decades of misrepresentation and widespread misunderstanding, a heavy stigma hangs around psychopathy, preventing medical research and stifling empathy for those with the disorder.  

“Psychopathy is not a disorder of the soul, it’s a disorder of the brain and the mind,” explains Marsh. “Like any other psychological disorder, it’s caused by inherited factors and life experiences. That means we can use tools of psychology and neuroscience to understand how it emerges and, ultimately, how to prevent it and treat it effectively.”

Unlike other common mental disorders, however, psychopathy has historically been underfunded and under-researched. The lack of empirical knowledge on psychopathy has led to a dearth of resources for families and a lack of clinicians with the experience and knowledge to treat affected children and adults. After working with children who have psychopathic traits, Marsh realized the uphill battle their parents and families faced in seeking treatment.

“Parents of children with ADHD or anxiety or autism are able to find good information from mental health organizations on those disorders, their causes and research-based treatments from clinicians,” Marsh explains. “The parents of the kids I work with have none of that. Their parents are struggling and suffering, searching for answers, and worrying for their own safety and for their children’s safety.”

Turning the Tide

After Marsh was quoted in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, Ms. Michael, who has familial ties to individuals with psychopathy, reached out. The two quickly formed a working relationship advocating in a space with few champions. 

Together, the two co-founded the nonprofit organization Psychopathy Is, which is dedicated to correcting widespread misconceptions about the diagnosis of psychopathy, providing resources for affected individuals and families, and promoting the need for research that finds “more effective, targeted treatments.” Goals of this organization include advocating for universal pediatric screening for callous-unemotional traits, which are a risk factor for psychopathy, in addition to autism and other developmental disorders.

For Marsh and Ms. Michael, their organization represents an opportunity to rectify that deficit. They hope to not only build up resources for families and individuals with psychopathy, but to spur increased funding and research of the disorder. 

“In addition to contributing to Professor Marsh’s research on psychopathy, I hope my donation will inspire others who have been affected by personality disorders like psychopathy to consider helping to move research forward,” says Ms. Michael. “Whether they make contributions (of any size) directly to researchers and universities or to organizations like Psychopathy Is, people can make a real difference. I hope my donations to Prof. Marsh and Psychopathy Is will help move the field toward the goal of universal pediatric screenings for callous-unemotional traits, which is a risk factor for adult psychopathy.” 

For Marsh, her lab’s work has found a unique and nurturing home at Georgetown. 

“There are many different arenas in which Georgetown shows that everyone is deserving, as a human being, of compassion,” Marsh says. “It may not be immediately obvious, but this research is in the spirit of Georgetown, in the spirit of advocating for compassionate care for everyone regardless of their circumstances.”

-by Hayden Frye (CAS’17)