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."

soundoff (966 Responses)
  1. LrbsEncox

    levitra daily https://uslevitraanna.com/ pastilla levitra

    April 24, 2021 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. LhdvZisse

    cheap name brand cialis http://asciled.com/ buy cialis generic

    April 24, 2021 at 21:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. JbsdEncox

    cvs pharmacy online https://onlinecanda21.com/ pharmacy uk

    April 24, 2021 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. rv repair services


    April 25, 2021 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. RV Inspection Orange County

    Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday. It will always be exciting to read through articles from other writers and practice a little something from their web sites.


    April 25, 2021 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. LrbsEncox

    is levitra stronger than viagra what to expect from levitra levitra walmart

    April 26, 2021 at 05:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. sildenafil buy online

    chewable sildenafil https://eunicesildenafilcitrate.com/ how much is sildenafil 20 mg

    April 27, 2021 at 00:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. FbsfEncox

    Lumigan https://uspharmus.com/ – canadian drug Sildigra

    April 27, 2021 at 04:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. BbdfMile

    how much viagra to take first time http://gensitecil.com/ best herbal viagra

    April 27, 2021 at 09:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. FbsfEncox

    no prescription online pharmacy http://uspharmus.com/ – pharmacy cheap no prescription tadalafil

    April 27, 2021 at 20:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. AbdgEncox

    pharmacy prices https://canadianeve21.com/ Fildena

    April 27, 2021 at 22:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. real estate for sale coeur d alene idaho

    Hi! I just want to offer you a big thumbs up for the excellent info you've got right here on this post. I am coming back to your web site for more soon.


    April 27, 2021 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. LhdvZisse

    cialis (generic) https://asciled.com/ cialis for women side effects

    April 27, 2021 at 22:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RfvbZisse

    cialis online canada https://cileve.com/ generic cialis next day delivery

    April 28, 2021 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RfvbZisse

    cialis uk http://cileve.com/ – cialis replacement order generic cialis

    April 29, 2021 at 01:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. best canadian mail order pharmacies for diet pills

    canadian pills pharmacy https://canadapillstorex.com/ canadian weight loss pills

    April 30, 2021 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. JbsdEncox

    top rated online canadian pharmacies https://onlinecanda21.com/ Kamagra Oral Jelly

    April 30, 2021 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. avanafil

    avanafil india avanafil dosage

    May 1, 2021 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. AbdgEncox

    canada pharma limited llc http://canadianeve21.com/ Vasotec

    May 1, 2021 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. LhdvZisse

    cialis on ebay http://asciled.com/ original cialis online

    May 1, 2021 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. LrbsEncox

    levitra uk online http://uslevitraanna.com/ viagara cialis levitra

    May 2, 2021 at 03:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. how can i order cialis from a canadian pharmacy

    cialis, sale, canadian pharm. https://canadacialisstore.com/ cialis viagra combination canadian pharmacy

    May 2, 2021 at 04:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. tendances du coronavirus - france

    clorquine https://aralenchloroquinex.com/# malaria drugs list

    May 2, 2021 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. viagra canada over the counter

    generic viagra from canada https://canadaviagrastore.com/ is it safe to get viagra from canada

    May 2, 2021 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. JbsdEncox

    diabetes drugstore online Aurogra

    May 2, 2021 at 12:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. GvdbCrulk

    iron-dragon tadalafil https://boxtadafil.com/ tadalafil moa

    May 3, 2021 at 04:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. RebfZisse

    .99 for cialisis http://rcialisgl.com/ cialis

    May 3, 2021 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. GtnbCrulk

    can i buy viagra at walgreens https://jokviagra.com/ lady viagra

    May 4, 2021 at 00:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. JebgEncox

    Lumigan https://pharmacylo.com/ rx pharmacy online 24

    May 4, 2021 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. RebfZisse

    generic vs brand name cialis http://rcialisgl.com/ – cialis online mastecard is generic cialis safe

    May 4, 2021 at 00:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. GtnbCrulk

    where can you buy viagra http://jokviagra.com/ is viagra taxed

    May 4, 2021 at 03:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. AnooEncox

    cuando no funciona el viagra http://llviagra.com/ do all men use viagra

    May 4, 2021 at 07:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. BbshMile

    buy generic viagra online https://loxviagra.com/ generic viagra names

    May 4, 2021 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. aika online review


    May 4, 2021 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. RV Restoration Near Me

    An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more about this subject, it might not be a taboo matter but generally folks don't speak about these topics. To the next! Many thanks!!


    May 4, 2021 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. business coach

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!


    May 4, 2021 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. personal group

    I like reading through an article that will make men and women think. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!


    May 4, 2021 at 18:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. RV Washing Riverside


    May 4, 2021 at 18:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. chevy cargo van

    Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to produce a superb article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and don't manage to get anything done.


    May 4, 2021 at 18:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. aika online private servers


    May 4, 2021 at 23:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Optometry Near Me


    May 5, 2021 at 00:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. aika private server english


    May 5, 2021 at 03:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. LebnEncox

    best drugstore setting powder http://xlnpharmacy.com/ onlinecanadianpharmacy 24

    May 5, 2021 at 07:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. medium duty truck repair


    May 5, 2021 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. aika online download


    May 5, 2021 at 12:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. JebgEncox

    Buspar http://pharmacylo.com/ best canadian online pharmacies

    May 5, 2021 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. cloroquine protein

    cloriquin https://chloroquineorigin.com/ cholorquine

    May 5, 2021 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. truck air conditioning

    Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Thank you so much, However I am experiencing troubles with your RSS. I don’t understand the reason why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody else getting the same RSS problems? Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanks!!


    May 5, 2021 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. RV Seats Orange County


    May 5, 2021 at 16:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. mack lr

    Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am having troubles with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I can't subscribe to it. Is there anybody having similar RSS issues? Anyone who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanks!!


    May 5, 2021 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Leave a Reply to Camper Repair Places Near Me


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.