More on the criminal brain: Nature vs. nurture
February 28th, 2011
12:49 PM ET

More on the criminal brain: Nature vs. nurture

Whether a criminal's nature is biologically ingrained, and perhaps even inherited, is a highly controversial notion that's now getting serious scientific attention. We had a flood of questions and comments last week about recent research on the topic, which shows that it may be possible to predict which children are likely to become criminals or psychopaths based on brain anatomy and genetics.

Adrian Raine, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is conducting some fascinating experiments to figure out the brain signatures of criminal behavior, and what kinds of interventions might prevent people from ever becoming offenders. I posed some of your questions, and my own, to him, after we all had more time to think critically about the issues.

If there are these genetic and biological influences on crime, to what extent are factors like parenting important?

More than a hundred studies have shown that about half of crime is, on some level, under genetic control. That also means that environmental factors such as parenting, abuse, poverty, discrimination and unemployment account for the other half, Raine said. So, the "nurture" part of the picture is just as important as the "nature." For the past several decades, research into criminology has focused solely on the environment story. "If we want to stop crime, if we want to be able to understand the causes and develop treatment programs to attack the causes, we really need to understand all the pieces," Raine said.

What distinguishes repeat offenders from criminals in remission, who may not commit any more crimes?

Research on young offenders has shown that some offenders who haven't committed a crime in four years still have the same brain functional abnormalities as repeat offenders. But this is another example of how important environment can be, Raine said. Those who don't continue committing crimes may have a loving mother or father, or a wonderful teacher who suddenly becomes a role model, or a strong romantic relationship, Raine said. "Falling in love, getting engaged, getting married, that can do a great deal to take someone off the biological path," he said.

"The environment can change the brain, and even though you’ve got these risk factors, they’re not destiny," he said. "Maybe it's the balance of the risk vs. protective factors which is actually the most important thing. We haven't really done that research, and we need to."

What are some possible interventions for children who have risk factors for criminal behavior?

An enriching environment can go a long way in helping young children. Raine's group conducted a study with 3-year-olds in which half of the kids received a two-year program of better nutrition - including two-and-a-half extra portions of fish per week, more physical exercise every day, and educational activities. Then, the study authors followed up with the kids for 20 years. At age 11, the kids who had been randomly assigned to the enrichment program from ages 3 to 5 showed greater attention and signs of having more mature brains. At age 23, researchers found a 36% reduction in criminal offending in the kids who had done the early enrichment.

"It's never too early, and it's never too late," he said. "We can tackle and change these biological risk factors for crime and violence."

There have been more than 45 randomized, controlled experimental trials on using medications with aggressive children, and generally they seem to work - some better than others, Raine said. It appears that certain antipsychotics, antidepressants and anticonvulsants can help, but many parents don't want to put their kids on these kinds of treatments.

That's why Raine's group is looking at omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, as a means of boosting brain power and combating antisocial behavior and aggression in children. Omega-3 has been shown to reduce serious offending among prisoners in two experiments, one in England and one in the Netherlands.

Your research has shown that abnormal fear responses in children may foreshadow later psychopathy or criminal behavior. But what about iconoclasts, people who have distinguished themselves by not being afraid to challenge norms and expectations?

These people who put forward great ideas that go against the grain are courageous, but that doesn't mean to say that they don't feel worried or anxious about what the backlash could be. They have a firm belief that something is right, and feel it's their duty to put it forward. Emotion informs decision-making, and people who lack emotions are psychopathic and make bad decisions.

"A certain degree of anticipatory fear is actually good. It's when you lack that that you make awful life decisions, bad decisions, take awful risks and end up in prison," Raine said.

Do psychopaths know the difference between right and wrong?

They know right from wrong, Raine said, but they lack the feeling for what is wrong. When confronted with moral dilemmas, most people get worried, and those emotions helps inform the judgment. An experiment looking at brain activity during ethical conundrums found that the amygdala, a brain region critical to fear response and emotion, is not as active when psychopaths are thinking about moral dilemmas, compared with non-psychopaths. Interestingly, psychopaths' answers to those questions don't differ from other people's; it's just that their brains aren't showing the same emotional response.

"The law is predicated on the cognitive component of 'do you know right from wrong?' That was fine 800 years ago, as a rule to guide us in punishment, and innocence-guilt," he said. "But now I think we have to ask, do people have the emotional ability to make the right moral decision? That's the question I'm raising for the judicial system and the legal system."

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