Wednesday, July 07, 2010

NPR - Can Genes And Brain Abnormalities Create Killers?

I listened to this show yesterday while driving home from the gym - very interesting. My hope is that this new research will go a long way toward eliminating the death penalty. It should not absolve anyone of guilt and responsibility for what they have done, but no one should be killed for things their genetics and brain chemistry set them up to do (no one should be killed, period, but many people need a reason NOT to kill).

The guests point out - and it's important that they did - that no one is born a serial killer. You might have the genetics to be violent, but it takes an environmental trigger, such as serious abuse, to activate the genes and alter the brain chemistry.


Barbara Bradley Hagerty, correspondent, NPR's national desk
Stephen Morse, professor of psychology and law in psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania
Joshua Greene, assistant professor, Harvard University
Kent Kiehl, director of Mobile Imaging Core and Clinical Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of New Mexico

Breakthroughs in neuroscience are changing the way criminals are defended in court. Scientific research on brain scans and DNA has provided new insight on how some kinds of criminals are different from law-abiding citizens. Differences in their brains and genes may predispose them to violence.

Here is the beginning of the transcript - for those who would rather read it, the whole transcript is available.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today, the criminal brain and what's being called neurolaw. Scientific research on brain scans and DNA provide new insight on what makes some kinds of criminals different than you and me, information that's begun to be introduced as evidence in some trials.

The data challenge how we think about right and wrong, about guilt and innocent and about the penalty to fit the crime.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty just completed a three-part series for NPR on this topic. If you missed the broadcasts on MORNING EDITION, you can find a link to them on our website, and she joins us in just a moment.

Later in the hour, what makes a psychopath, and does neuroscience tell us that once a psychopath, always a psychopath? But first, we want to hear from those of you who have questions about this new research and its implications.

We're going to focus a little bit later in the program, on how it's being introduced as evidence in courts of law, so if you've dealt with criminals as lawyers or in law enforcement, if you've come in contact with neurolaw, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at that aforementioned website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty joins us here in Studio 3A. Barbara, always nice to have you on the program.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: Now, you got interested in the subject through a neuroscientist named James Fallon at UC Irvine.

HAGERTY: That's right, that's right. Jim Fallon has studied the brains of serial killers for something like 20 years, and he had a theory about what makes a serial killer's brain different from yours and mine. And his theory basically involves a couple of things, three things, but two of them is brain function and genes.

So he believes that the brains of serial killers operate differently. On brain scans, it looks like their orbital frontal cortex, which is right above the eyes, is a little bit less active, or a lot less active, than the amygdale, when they're processing information.

He and others believe that the orbital frontal cortex is involved with moral decision-making and ethical behavior, and it...

CONAN: Executive decisions.

HAGERTY: Right, exactly. And it puts a brake on the amygdale, which is involved with fear, and anger, and violence, and appetites and that kind of thing.

CONAN: The reptile brain.

HAGERTY: That's exactly right. So if the orbital cortex, the moral decision-making area of the brain, is not doing its job, then he believes that this person is more likely to be violent. So it's a break the brakes aren't working, essentially.

CONAN: And the genetic component of this?

HAGERTY: Yeah, that's really interesting, too. There are certain genes that have been found to be related to violence, and one in particular that's gotten a lot of attention is called the MAOA gene. It's also called the warrior gene because it regulates the serotonin system in the brain - serotonin in the brain, which affects moods, you know, think Prozac, that kind of thing.

Fallon and others have found that if you have a particular variant of this warrior gene, you are going to be predisposed toward violence. So he believes that serial killers have both a different brain function and a different genetic makeup.

CONAN: Now, it's interesting. In one of the stories you did, you talked with Jim Fallon, and among the things he did, he's using scans called PET scans, which are one kind of brain scan, and, well, among the people he tested was himself.


Mr. JIM FALLON: If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers. I have the pattern, a risky pattern. In a sense, I'm a born killer. It was, frankly, a little disturbing.

You know, you start to look at yourself, and you say: I may be a sociopath. I don't think I am, but this looks exactly like psychopaths, sociopaths, that I've seen before.

CONAN: So he's got the image.

HAGERTY: Yes, you know, I've got to tell you, it's the best part of this story. About four years ago, he was at a barbecue with his mother, who was then 88 years old, and he was telling her about the science he was doing, and she said, well, Jimmy, you know, have you looked at the people in your family, your ancestors on your father's side? They're a bunch of cuckoos there.

CONAN: Of course on his father's side.

HAGERTY: On his father's side. She was, you know, quick to point that out. It turns out that in his ancestry, about eight people have been accused of murder, including Lizzie Borden - you know, Lizzie Borden, right, took an axe...

CONAN: Took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks.

HAGERTY: Right, exactly. And so what he decided to do with this little, you know, family experiment, he got family members, his brothers, sisters, mother, wife, all his children, to do brain scans. And he also did genotyping on all of them, to see if they had the brains and the genes of a serial killer. It turns out, everyone's normal except for him.

CONAN: And obviously, though, he's not a serial killer - or at least not that we know of.

HAGERTY: Right, right. And that brings us really to the third part or the third thing that you need, he believes, to be a serial killer, and that is you need to have been abused as a child. You need to have experienced violence as a child.

So it's both nature and nurture, and it was interesting because he said this really changed his view of nature and nurture. He used to believe everything was determined by genes and brain function. But now he doesn't believe it. He thinks that, you know, maybe his great childhood was the reason that he's not behind bars right now.

Read the rest.


Steve said...

If someone's "genetics and brain chemistry" "sets them up" to commit murder, how are they "responsible" for their crime?

william harryman said...

Because biology is not destiny - this material may seem to eliminate notions of free will, but legally free will is essential to our system. Philosophically is another issue . . .

Steve said...

What if there is no "free will" and our legal system is wrong to embrace it? What then?

william harryman said...

Neuroscience does not negate free will. It shows tendencies and possibilities, but does not mandate them.

Even circumstances are not destiny - see Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, poor kids from single parent families who somehow became President.

If one believes in God or some other mythical being who plans out our lives or controls events, then yes, free will is an illusion.

As yet, no one has even come close to proving the existence of a God, so I'm going to keep on being the agent of my own life.

Steve said...

Bill, my question wasn't whether we have free will but whether and how the legal system should be changed IF we DON'T have it.

I agree that neuroscience likely "doesn't negate free will," because thoughts appear to control brains just as brains control thoughts. Yet, I would also contend that biological events in the brain and mental events in the mind are inevitable given the interrelated physical, biological, psychological, and sociocultural conditions out of which they arise.

And if I'm correct, when people commit crimes, they were not "free" at that point in time to not commit those crimes. Given the individual-environment field they were at that time, they did what they had to do. And if I'm right, the legal system should perhaps be reformed to take this into account.

One does not need to believe in God to believe in unfree will, unless, perhaps, one sees "God" as the All is One and One is allness of it all. What's more, a COMBINATION of biology and "circumstances" might well go far to explain the INEVITABLE difference between a Bill Clinton or Barack Obama on the one hand and a garden variety criminal on the other.

Unknown said...


I would suppose that if it is determined [really, predetermined] that there is no free will and that everything is determined [really, predetermined], then people, indeed, should not be punished for their crimes, but locked out of the way of civil society for their asocial behaviors.

But, then, this isn't something we have to think about, since whatever happens, happens.