Neuroanatomical differences among sexual offenders: A targeted review with limitations and implications for future directions

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As sexual assault and child sexual abuse continue to be worldwide public health concerns, research has continued to explore factors associated with sexual offending. Structural and functional neuroanatomical brain differences have been examined in an effort to differentiate sexual offenders and their behavior. This targeted review searched PubMed and Google Scholar for empirical studies using brain imaging techniques to examine possible structural or functional differences among control groups compared with at least one group of sexual offenders with contact offenses. This targeted review summarizes the structural and functional findings of 15 brain imaging studies (i.e., computed tomography, diffusion tensor imaging, magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging), which suggest possible differences in brain size and gray matter volume, cortical thickness, white matter connectivity, and specific structural and functional differences among brain regions (fronto-temporal region, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, etc.). The methodological limitations of brain imaging studies and the associated findings with regard to sexual offenders are highlighted, as research indicates that many of the proposed differences in brain structure and function are not unique to this population. We further highlight several limitations to using neuroimaging studies to examine this population of interest, including publication bias, small sample size, underpowered studies, and all-male samples. As these results are mixed and findings are not seemingly unique to sexual offenders, we suggest future sexual offender research may benefit from focusing on more financially feasible options, such as neuropsychological assessment approaches, to assess for and attend to offenders' criminogenic and rehabilitative/therapeutic needs in alignment with the risk-need-responsivity model.

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Violence and Gender