Kids' brains may hold clues to future criminals
February 21st, 2011
11:15 AM ET

Kids' brains may hold clues to future criminals

Who is going to grow up to become a criminal or psychopath?

Current research in genetics and neuroscience may point towards answers to this question, opening up a whole host of ethical questions about culpability, justice and treatment.

"Is there truly freedom of will, as the law assumes? Freedom of will may not be as free as many of us may think," said Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania.

Experiments by Raine have found that by looking at the brains of 3-year-old children, scientists could already see signs of potential trouble in the future. Raine discussed this research Monday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.

Those who had poor amygdala function at that time were more likely to become criminal offenders later in life, in the 20-year time span during which the scientists followed them. The amygdala is an almond-shaped brain area associated with fear, and it appears that a trend among offenders is that fear conditioning is impaired. Researchers did not directly measure amygdala function in a brain scanner, but used the children's fear responses to an anticipated punishment as a proxy for that.

In fact, adult psychopaths appear to have an 18% reduction of the volume of the amygdala compared with non-psychopaths. This difference might explain why psychopaths lack remorse, fear and guilt. (Interestingly, white-collar criminals actually show enhanced brain function in decision-making and other cognitive skills, according to Raine's unpublished research).

He also noted that a brain region called the orbital frontal cortex tends to be associated with being antisocial when its volume is smaller; as a group, men have a smaller orbital frontal cortex than women, which may help explain why men as a whole tend to commit more crimes than women.

Raine is not saying that this is a perfect predictive tool; it's not going to point to which individual child is going to commit a crime. Moreover, all of the data he reports is correlational, meaning he hasn't proven that these brain abnormalities cause criminal behavior. But it doesn't seem to make as much sense to think that living a criminal lifestyle would cause impaired fear conditioning, as it would the other way around, he said.

There is also evidence that what psychologists call "callous-unemotional traits" in childhood are risk factors for becoming a psychopath. Such traits include a lack of guilt about wrongdoings, absence of feelings or emotions, unhelpfulness to someone in need and unkindness to other children.

New research in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, also presented at the conference, looked at more than 9,500 children when they were ages 7, 9 and 12 from the United Kingdom's Twin Early Development Study. Researchers led by Natalie Fontaine at Indiana University showed that children who had hyperactivity, peer problems and emotional problems at 12 years old tended to have had increased levels of such callous-unemotional traits and conduct problems earlier in childhood.

Because participants were twins, the researchers were also able to look at genetics, and found a strong heritability for boys with high levels of persistent callous-unemotional traits. For girls with these traits that did not change much over time, environmental factors seemed to be more important.

We can look at these associations, but biology and genetics are not destiny. There will never be a perfectly accurate predictor of who will grow up to be an offender, Raine said. And 80% of delinquent adolescents do not continue to offend in adulthood, said Dustin Pardini of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But by better understanding how these behaviors developed, early interventions can be adjusted to specific needs, Fontaine said.

The question from all of this becomes: If psychopaths are the way they are because of brain abnormalities or genetic influences already apparent in childhood, and should they be punished as to the same degree as other criminals?

And if they should get special treatment, "Is that not a slippery slope toward Armageddon, where none of us are responsible for our actions, because all actions and behaviors come from our brain?" Raine said.

The extent to which biological factors should play a role in the justice system is an open and highly controversial question, as is the extent to which biological interventions should be developed to reduce crime, Raine said. Preliminary research has shown that omega-3 may reduce criminal offending in prison; this is just one line of future inquiry.

What do you think: If neurological and genetic factors out of a person's control contribute to criminal offending, do we need to rethink how they are punished? If we punish people to deter others from committing crimes, does that make sense if psychopaths aren't afraid of the consequences of their actions anyway? Share your thoughts in the comments.

soundoff (221 Responses)
  1. Dev

    I don't think this study should use children who are innocent and haven't committed any crimes...does that even make sense...your brain is a muscle and many things can trigger that muscle to react or stimulate...if you want to understand the mind of a psychopath then study a psychopath not a child...if the prison system was designed to rehabilitate criminals then we would already understand them and not have to use innocent children as guinea pigs.

    February 21, 2011 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. ncc

    The article doesn't say they don't understand what they did,so as long as they know right from wrong, full punishment, no special treatments. Just because they lack fear and emotion is no reason to get off easy.

    February 22, 2011 at 00:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Justina

    Americans don't respect God. They don't respect Pope or not even their Presidents. Why should kids respect anyone in such a society? When respect is gone, human life is cheap. Perverse society produces perverts. America needs national repentance.

    February 22, 2011 at 02:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. azreal

    this is alittle too brave new world for my tastes even if the little runts have the potential by no means does it mean for sure they will turn out a criminal

    February 22, 2011 at 02:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Observer

    Fear is biologically linked, but remorse and guilt are not biologically conditioned, they are cultural. "Crimes" and being a "psychopath" are defined differently in different cultures. A "psychopath" in one culture may be an admired "hero" in another. There are also cultures throughout human history that have rewarded callousness in males as a positive "tough-guy" trait, perhaps useful for group survival. In fact, in some human cultures no one can possibly become a "criminal", because the culture has no laws, police, or judges. The psychological researcher mentioned here has somehow confused the values of English and American middle-class culture in the here and now with some sort of biologically programmed "human nature" (e.g., remorse, guilt, empathy) that is supposed to exist in humans in all times and places, which is sort of silly science.

    February 22, 2011 at 03:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. melayne

    What I see by reading some of these well thought out comments is again the nature vs nurture argument. Does a child born with the given brain 'problems' mentioned in the study, always end up a criminal, or at least some of the time, or does a perfectly normal brain in a child always end up normal, or at least part of the time, or also end up a criminal, as in a white collar criminal? The study is not definitive, but it does seem to accentuate previous studies about this either genetic or acquired criminality. And, not only that, but time itself can be a determinate factor – as in certain times of history, this or that type of personality traits can be either adored or dispised. I would like to think that we, as a culture in the US, are advanced ijn this research, but there obviously are alot of unknowns out there, and neurological research of this type can be difficult and costly. One of my logic professors once described this conundrum as a three legged stool : time(as in historical time), distance(as in genetic distance from normality), and shielding(as in environmental conditioning). Appreciate the efforts of the researchers.

    February 22, 2011 at 03:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Listen up

    Humans are evil from birth. They are taught right from wrong. Everything we do or don't is a direct response from some authority figure that brought us up. Bring someone up wrong, and you know what happens. Everyone's brain is wired differently. There is no way to study and bring conclusions on the brain.

    February 22, 2011 at 07:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mulholland

      No way to bring conclusions except when it involves a $ex offender. Everyone is in agreement that they are 100% untreatable and should be done away with.

      February 22, 2011 at 08:57 | Report abuse |
    • Jeremiah

      Yes, there are ways to study and draw conclusions about how the brain works. Otherwise, brain surgeons wouldn't have much of a job. Idiot.

      April 11, 2011 at 01:37 | Report abuse |
  8. RdclCntrst

    (sigh) I thought we had settled this. The behavior of an individual is almost NEVER caused solely by "nature" or by "nurture", but by a combination and interplay of both. Period. A smaller amygdala doesn't predict future sociopathy any more than does a horribly abusive upbringing. Many people who experience one or the other, or both, go on to lead honest, productive lives. I find the article interesting, but it doesn't change anything.

    February 22, 2011 at 07:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Mulholland

    Great, maybe soon we can start this scan before the fetus reaches 24 weeks and decide whether it is reasonable to continue the pregnancy or not. This could be a good story line for a minority report sequel.

    February 22, 2011 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. skeptical

    I think this is BS. Science tries to explain everything as if everything was as clear cut as black and white. What about the role that the child's own envirornment and upbringing plays on this? What's next? add a brain scan to children's well being visits like adding new vaccine shots? what will they do next? develop a 'miracle' drug to medicate the potential 'trouble' chidlren? I'm sure the pharmaceutical industry will follow this one closely....

    February 22, 2011 at 09:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Gabor47

    One day I may write a book about this subject. It is far more complex than an internet article, followed by a superficial conversation. Until then: a person is the sum of genetics and upbringing. Neither should be neglected, only accepted that those are both equally critical for the final outcome.

    February 22, 2011 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. clubchampx10

    Once again the "nature -vs- nurture" argument...which is the determining factor in predicting future criminality? With this study we could screen every newborn...but then what? Do we incarcerate them? Make "accommodations" whenever a crime is committed? These kinds of studies can lead to eugenics if we're not careful. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    February 22, 2011 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Dottie Lou

    People that are sociopaths, psychopaths, or have antisocial tendencies should be punished just like anybody else. Maybe even a little more creatively (although I have no suggestions). The purpose of criminal law is usually to prove the perpetrator knew right from wrong and had intention. These people know right from wrong, they just don't care. They know enough right/wrong to try and hide what they did. They will lie to cover it up. I hope this type of research does not become an accepted defense in our judicial system.

    I believe you can recognize antisocial behavior early in childhood. These children are violent and aggressive. They seem to actually enjoy being mean and hurting others. I do think children can see this in other children, they just don't know how to express what they're seeing. All they know to say is "So-and-so is always being bad or mean" They don't always have the knowledge and language skills to describe what they see.

    February 22, 2011 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lita Perna

    A person’s internal regulation is what deters crime, not fear of consequences and threats of punishment. Most people would not rob banks or kill even if they thought they could get away with it.
    Neurological and genetic factors may be out of our control but these factors should not reduce responsibility. If we accept reduced responsibility due to these factors the only logical thing to do would be to lock up three year olds with identified poor amygdalas for life.

    Lita Perna, MA, LCPC, NCC

    February 22, 2011 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Melissa

    Science will – if unimpeded by political or social barriers – prove some truths about criminality and genetic and racial proclivities. These facts will simply underscore what is already painfully obvious if one simply looks at their local crime data. Minorities, especially blacks, commit nearly all of the crimes. While horrific cases like Bundy stand out, what damages society the most is the daily penetration of crimes, small and large into the normal lives of the average citizens. The neighborhoods that become unsafe to walk in, the time of day that one must start considering personal safety (don't work late at the office!), the public areas no one is safe in. We have a lovely mall in my area, one that many parents felt comfortable dropping their children off for an afternoon of movies and socializing. Then a new bus route stop made it possible for minorities from the bad parts of town to invade. Is it their skin color? NO – it is the demeanor, the threatening behavior, the theft, the language and the tendency to commit opportunistic crimes, small and large. We are supposed to treat them as equals, but one look at their eyes makes it obvious that THEY do not consider anyone outside their circle as human. Complete lack of empathy which is why you can speak to them with courtesy, offer assistance, smile politely, and still get shot. The sooner science gives us a way to remove these people from polite and civilized society, whether by cure or by labeling, the better because we cannot rely on the politicians or social engineers to protect the non-criminals.
    The press and the media are guilty of promoting lies by omission – they consistently hide or ignore stories that involve minority viciousness. Google Channon Christian or Quiana Pietrzak, Jeanne Clery, or just check your local crime blogs for pizza delivery men or students being shot. No one in their right mind would support condemning people based on skin color, but the failure to acknowledge the reality of genetic deficiencies in intellect and character is destructive to society as a whole.

    February 22, 2011 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Michael Wong

    This is why the "free will" argument is utterly stupid. The concept of legal and social responsibility is based on cause and effect, not some mystical nonsense about "free will". The only reason we have the "free will" doctrine is Christianity, and its bizarre doctrine that God does not intervene to stop evil because he respects our "free will". In reality, God does not intervene to stop evil because he either doesn't care or doesn't exist. "Free will" is a meaningless concept; none of us are completely independent of our biology or our environment, past or present. It is popular mostly as a justification for a serious ethical question about Christianity's teachings.

    February 22, 2011 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. jj wallings

    Wow! I can't believe what I am reading! Where is this society going? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Not "guilty until proven innocent"! What a Godless society we have become!

    February 22, 2011 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. thepearl

    These studies do NOT prove that kids are just born that way. Testing was at three years old and the first three years of a child's life is the most formative! How much of what they are seeing could be explained by the conditions these kids are being raised?

    I would agree that some kids are "vulnerable" to developing toward criminal activity because of hereditary issues, but then we have to figure out how to help them before they get to that point. We CAN NOT let criminals off the hook anymore than we can throw a three year old in jail to keep him from possibly committing a crime. People DO still have free will.

    February 22, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Iris

    Was it brain chemistry or poor educations which resulted in "towards" in the first sentence? Ouch !

    March 11, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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  21. SortaIsh

    A few points:
    1. It doesn't have to be either that the brain chemistry causes the criminal behavior or the other way around. The brain chemistry could cause a few in and of themselves neutral traits like a strong drive towards the fulfillment of one's goals that in one environment leads the person to adopt goals that are generally helpful to others or at least don't hurt them, but in another environment leads to goals that are generally unhelpful and hurtful. There was a psychiatrist once who in a brain scan, his brain looked like a psychopath's. But he's not violent or a criminal, so we can assume psychopathy is not itself a brain disease though it may require/be more likely to occur with certain chemical prerequisites.

    Another point,
    A person doesn't need to feel empathy(which means feeling another person's feelings, you can still respect other people's rights even if you don't feel for them), guilt, fear, or remorse in order to behave morally. A person may take pride in constructing and following a moral code dedicated to the pursuit of and furtherance of good for humanity as a whole and it may even turn out to be more rationally competent for serving the collective good than anything based on emotion. The person may instead of feeling guilty rationally realize what happened and rationally conclude to do something differently in the future. So a psychopath who commits a crime has still chosen to commit the crime. It doesn't matter what they are and are not feeling. I fully expect and demand that regardless of how someone feels that they must obey certain basic rules necessarily to prevent harm to others and protect everyone's rights. And if they don't they need to be locked up and separated from society. Choice or not, it's clear that choosing(or being predetermined, doesn't really matter does it?) that we should have a society that enforces against violence and victimizing people yields positive outcomes. If it's all just deterministic then we are predetermined to do what is within our awareness appears to be the best choices for ourselves. If it's all predetermined then we have no duty not to punish someone for something outside their control when doing so will help the collective good and will inevitably continue because if it's all predetermined then we have no reason to feel badly about it, it's just a mechanistic process anyways so why not just do it the best possible way for all without any regard to whether the punished is actually culpable(as if(per determinism) we had any choice other than to do what we thought rightly or wrongly was the best decision)?
    Another point f someone didn't have those feelings but still acted as a good person then we have no grounds to condemn the person. If one defines psychopathy by the absence of certain emotions then one must conclude that psychopaths aren't inherently evil, because one can have motivations for caring(meant in a non-emotional sense) other than emotional reasons.

    3. Regardless of whether will is free or not "Choice" exists as something very real within our society and we recognize it in ourselves. Science should make brain scans that details the decision-making process. This is necessary also to determine the limits of responsibility which I think will turn out to be much, much broader than some people are expecting. Right now if scientists show brain differences in relation to anything people instantly assume that means no choice, as if our choices and our thoughts occurred in some other dimension. Our choices and our thoughts occur in our brains, hence our choices and thoughts are themselves collections of chemicals. When that particular collectional set up is shown to be able to interact with the rest of the brain and change it in certain ways then that means you have the power to choose and may alter your brain chemistry through your choices.

    March 31, 2013 at 01:49 | Report abuse | Reply
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