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May 7, 2013 at 6:15 AM

Bad brains, criminal family trees and the rise of neurocriminology

An interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with criminologist Adrian Raine raises a fascinating question: do bad brains cause bad behavior?

Raine thinks so, and has the brain imaging research to prove it. Brain scans of psychopaths show their brains are different from normal people, and their amygdala, the emotional governor of the brain, are remarkably smaller.

This research is putting a spotlight on the field of neurocriminology, which Raine writes about his new book, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Sounds like a meaty, provocative read.

The interview reminded me of a New York Times story from 2002 tracing criminal behavior through a family tree, raising the old nature-versus-nurture debate. The story notes that half of the juveniles in custody have a father, mother or close relative who’s served time.

The concept is not new: any veteran police officer can tell you stories of generational crime. But brain imaging research raises interesting questions about how we should approach criminal sentencing. If we know someone has the biological markers of sociopathy, shouldn’t parole officers pay heightened attention?

More importantly, if sociopathy is closely linked to a medical condition – ie, a withered amygdala – is there an opportunity for a medical treatment? If we can treat ADHD, and schizophrenia, and epilepsy, how about a crime-prevention drug? Call it Thug-B-Gone (feel free to suggest a more clever name).

Raine in his interview tries to inoculate himself from the notion of criminal destiny: people make choices. But he also is applies the research to to the death penalty debate (and I’m inclined to agree).

“I’ve got to be careful here. There’s no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it’s more than biology, and there’s lots of factors that we’re talking about there, and one factor like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate doesn’t make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? What if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life. I mean, you’re not responsible for that. Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do … and punish them as much as we do — including death?”

Here’s the Wall Street Journal video story on Raine.

0 Comments | Topics: crime, death penalty

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