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The biology of criminality

June 12, 2011

Criminal Minds

Adrian Raine thinks brain scans can identify children who may become killers

Can This Man Predict Whether Your Child Will Become a Criminal? 1
Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review
A child in Adrian Raine's lab at the U. of Pennsylvania, wearing a cap with electrodes to measure brain activity.

By Josh Fischman

Along with several other researchers, he has pioneered the science of neurodevelopmental criminology. In adult offenders, juvenile delinquents, and even younger children, dozens of studies have pointed to brain features that seem to reduce fear, impair decision making, and blunt emotional reactions to others' distress. The studies have also highlighted body reactions that are signs of this pattern and are tied to criminality.

"So if I could tell you, as a parent, that your child has a 75-percent chance of becoming a criminal, wouldn't you want to know and maybe have the chance to do something about it?" asks Raine....

Society has always wondered about "bad seeds," people who seem to be possessed by devils. But what is emerging from this research is a cluster of biological markers that plant the bad seed in the brain. More striking, they appear to predict antisocial behavior even before it happens. Early warnings could avoid a world of hurt, because some of these people are terribly dangerous. . .

When they further divided murderers into those who came from "good" homes and those who came from "bad" homes—those filled with neglect, abuse, and poverty—the first group again showed lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, in particular an area called the orbitofrontal cortex. Raine's interpretation: Genetics and anatomy were more influential on their development than was the way they grew up; the murderers from good homes seemed to be terribly affected by this low-functioning brain region. 

And it wasn't just function. Brain form was also impaired, Raine and his coworkers found. A series of studies using magnetic resonance imaging, which reveals structures and shapes, showed that criminals and people who scored high on tests of antisocial disorders had different-looking brains. Both the orbitofrontal region and the amygdala were smaller than normal. And the corpus callosum, the bridge between the brain's two hemispheres that helps them communicate, was abnormally large....

In his current study of Philadelphia children with the slow physical reactivity that has been linked to trouble, some are getting a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and calcium to see if those protect brain cells, some are getting cognitive-behavioral therapy, and some are getting both to see if trouble can be staved off.
Still, the time is coming, Raine believes, when putting numbers on children will be tempting. If a 75-percent chance of a bad seed isn't high enough, he wonders, what about 80 percent? Or 95? "Look, I have two children, 9-year-old, nonidentical twin boys," he says. "And I'd definitely want to know, especially if there was a treatment that has a chance of success. But I realize not every parent will. We have to start having this conversation now, though, so we understand the risks and the benefits. It's easy to get on your moral high horse about stigma and civil liberties, but are you going to have blood on your hands in the future because you've blocked an approach that could lead to lives being saved?"
"One swallow does not a summer make. But together, this is a message in the sky."


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