The familial basis of facial emotion recognition deficits in adolescents with conduct disorder and their unaffected relatives

Kate Sully, Edmund Sonuga-Barke, Graeme Fairchild

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BACKGROUND: There is accumulating evidence of impairments in facial emotion recognition in adolescents with conduct disorder (CD). However, the majority of studies in this area have only been able to demonstrate an association, rather than a causal link, between emotion recognition deficits and CD. To move closer towards understanding the causal pathways linking emotion recognition problems with CD, we studied emotion recognition in the unaffected first-degree relatives of CD probands, as well as those with a diagnosis of CD.

METHOD: Using a family-based design, we investigated facial emotion recognition in probands with CD (n = 43), their unaffected relatives (n = 21), and healthy controls (n = 38). We used the Emotion Hexagon task, an alternative forced-choice task using morphed facial expressions depicting the six primary emotions, to assess facial emotion recognition accuracy.

RESULTS: Relative to controls, the CD group showed impaired recognition of anger, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise (all p < 0.005). Similar to probands with CD, unaffected relatives showed deficits in anger and happiness recognition relative to controls (all p < 0.008), with a trend toward a deficit in fear recognition. There were no significant differences in performance between the CD probands and the unaffected relatives following correction for multiple comparisons.

CONCLUSIONS: These results suggest that facial emotion recognition deficits are present in adolescents who are at increased familial risk for developing antisocial behaviour, as well as those who have already developed CD. Consequently, impaired emotion recognition appears to be a viable familial risk marker or candidate endophenotype for CD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1965-75
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number9
Early online date22 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015


  • Antisocial behaviour; callous-unemotional traits; conduct disorder; emotion recognition; endophenotype; family design; social cognition


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