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While both frontal lobe and HPA axis dysfunction are largely influential in regard to criminal behavior, for this discussion I’ve chosen to focus on the HPA axis.

While both frontal lobe and HPA axis dysfunction are largely influential in regard to criminal behavior, for this discussion I’ve chosen to focus on the HPA axis.

While both frontal lobe and HPA axis dysfunction are largely influential in regard to criminal behavior, for this discussion I’ve chosen to focus on the HPA axis. According to Jambroes et al. (2019), the HPA axis, or the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis is the one of the main stress regulating systems in the body. The functioning of this system is closely linked to flight or fight responses as it helps to control the release of cortisol. Cortisol is relevant as reduced levels of it have been linked to increased instances of persistent and aggressive behavior in youth (Jambroes et al., 2019). Additionally, the HPA-axis is associated with a myriad of criminal behaviors, to include callous-unemotional (CU) traits, and others associated with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). As explained by Jambroes et al. (2019), ASPD is linked to low levels of arousal, which are in turn made evident by a decrease in HPA-axis activity. As a whole, the concept of reduced HPA-axis activity leading to antisocial tendencies can be referred to as the fearlessness theory, suggesting that individuals with these deficits do not experience fear in the same way as their healthy counterparts. (Jambroes et al., 2019). Further expanding on that is the fact that fearless behavior has a tendency to predispose youth to aggressive and delinquent behaviors as they are not deterred by consequences or punishments. Pompa (2006) echoes these findings, indicating how low HPA-axis activity is connected to antisocial behavior and other negative outcomes, such as social isolation and unemployment. Response to treatment (or lack thereof) in individuals with HPA-axis dysfunction also helps to offer some insight into the long-term deficits of having this dysfunction. Specifically, Jambroes et al. (2019) advises that those with this dysfunction are typically unresponsive to treatment, resulting in the continuation of criminal behavior. 

In addition to ASPD, disruptions in the HPA-axis function are connected to psychopathy, child abuse, and neglect (Gowin et al., 2013). Additional groups influenced by this are those experiencing bipolar disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, and even those with persistent immune system problems and frequent illnesses (Brown, n.d.). As mentioned previously, the HPA-axis is closely linked to cortisol levels. Gowin et al. (2013) expands on this further through explaining the role of early life stress. Specifically, stress that is present throughout formative years, dating as far back as to the prenatal period (Brown, n.d.) can disrupt the HPA-axis, leading to altered cortisol levels. In turn, this leads to the presence of a number of mental health disorders and physical conditions, including PTSD and chronic stress. Those who spend a lot of time in high stress environments, such as homeless shelters or prisons, have been found to have heightened levels of HPA-axis dysfunction, further supporting the connection between it and high levels of stress. Also relevant is that childhood sexual abuse was identified as a psychological stressor as it hinders one’s cortisol response. Furthermore, being victimized by sexual abuse as a child was linked to the presence of ASPD 7 years down the road, further strengthening the apparent connection between childhood stressors, cortisol levels, and criminal behavior (Gowin et al., 2013). 

Through understanding the correlation between HPA-axis dysfunction and criminal behavior, one can better contextualize the abnormal behaviors of certain individuals. For example, Gowin et al. (2013), explains how childhood abuse and neglect lead to increased aggression through a combination of HPA-axis dysfunction, and heightened levels of psychopathy and impulsivity. This allows for a more multidimensional approach to understanding current criminal behaviors. From a forensic psychology standpoint, the understanding of this by no means excuses behaviors; however, it does provide a broader framework through which they can be viewed. As a result, it could open up additional avenues for treatment, or even be a part of a screening tool/risk assessment as there has been an already identified link between early trauma and HPA-axis dysfunction. 


Brown, J. (n.d.). HPA Axis Function and Implications. [Video]. Walden University Canvas. Topic: Week 2: Discussion (

Gowin, J. L., Green, C. E., Alcorn, J. L., Swann, A. C., Moeller, F. G., & Lane, S. D. (2013). The role of cortisol and psychopathy in the cycle of violence. Psychopharmacology, 227(4), 661–672.

Jambroes, T., Jansen, L. M. C., Oostermeijer, S., Ven, P. M. v. d., Doreleijers, T. A. H., Vermeiren, R. R. J. M., & Popma, A. (2019). CU-traits and HPA-axis reactivity conjointly relate to treatment effect in adolescents with severe antisocial behavior. Journal of Criminal Justice, 65, 101532.

Pompa, A., Jansen, L., Vermeiren, R., Steiner, H., Raine, A., Vangoozen, S., Engeland, H., & Doreleijers, T. (2006). Hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis and autonomic activity during stress in delinquent male adolescents and controls. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31(8), 948–957.

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