Brain basis for crime?

Feb 28, 2011 By Evan Lerner

Adrian Raine, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor in the Departments of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology, presented a collection of his work on neurocriminology that broadly attempts to connect criminal, psychopathic and aggressive behavior to physical characteristics of the brain at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.

Raine’s talk was part of a panel titled “Nature, Nurture, and Antisocial Behavior: Biological and Biosocial Research on Crime.” His research indicates that psychopaths who are criminal offenders lacking fear, remorse and guilt may show neurological evidence of their differences early in life.

In his most ambitious project, Raine and his colleagues measured autonomic fear conditioning—where the anticipation of a punishment causes an involuntary physical response that can be measured on the skin—in 1,800 children. They then searched for their subjects’ court records 20 years later. After controlling for social factors, they found that poor fear conditioning in 3-year-olds increased their odds of becoming a criminal offender by the age of 23.

Structural impairments in the also appear to be in place early in life in offenders. Adults with cavum septum pellucidum—a neurological condition that reflects underdevelopment of the emotion limbic system before the first six months of life—have higher rates of psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, arrests and convictions.

Raine and his colleagues have demonstrated that adult psychopaths have an amygdala that is 18 percent smaller in size compared to normal controls. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system that is critical for emotion, especially for fear conditioning.
Psychopaths also showed lower activity in the amygdala when confronted with moral dilemmas as compared to controls. Raine says this suggests that, “psychopaths know right from wrong, but they do not have the feeling of what is right and what is wrong.”

But, Raine says, not all offenders are the same. In a study of spouse abusers, Raine and colleagues demonstrated that when presented with emotionally provocative stimuli, wife abusers showed greater activity in the amygdala, an area that helps generate emotions, and less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate emotions, as compared to non-abusers. This suggests that rather than using violence at home in a planned, conscious way to control their spouses, some abusers instead over-react to mildly provocative stimuli with hair-trigger tempers that are partly predicated on brain-based emotional over-reactivity and reduced ability to regulate that emotion.

Raine’s ongoing research, conducted with William Laufer, professor of legal studies and business ethics, sociology, and in the Wharton School, is probing the brains of white-collar criminals. Presenting the findings of a pilot study, Raine says these offenders show better decision-making and increased attention. They also show an enlargement in areas of the brain responsible for social information processing, emotion regulation, and the monitoring of abstract rewards like money, as compared to carefully matched controls. Raine cautions that this work is very provisional and must be treated with appropriate circumspection.

While neurocriminology has come a long way from the days of measuring murderers’ skull circumferences, it still raises fundamental questions about how justice systems should operate. As Raine puts it: “If offenders have brain dysfunction for reasons beyond their control, should they be held fully responsible for their crimes?”

Explore further: Know the brain, and its axons, by the clothes they wear

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Brain difference in psychopaths identified

Aug 04, 2009

Professor Declan Murphy and colleagues Dr Michael Craig and Dr Marco Catani from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London have found differences in the brain which may provide a biological explanation ...

An underlying cause for psychopathic behavior?

Apr 27, 2010

Psychopaths are known to be characterized by callousness, diminished capacity for remorse, and lack of empathy. However, the exact cause of these personality traits is an area of scientific debate. The results of a new study, ...

Individuals with social phobia see themselves differently

Oct 06, 2008

Magnetic resonance brain imaging reveals that patients with generalized social phobia respond differently than others to negative comments about themselves, according to a report in the October issue of Archives of General Ps ...

Researchers discover how to erase memory

Nov 01, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers working with mice have discovered that by removing a protein from the region of the brain responsible for recalling fear, they can permanently delete traumatic memories. Their report on a molecular ...

Recommended for you

Know the brain, and its axons, by the clothes they wear

Apr 18, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—It is widely know that the grey matter of the brain is grey because it is dense with cell bodies and capillaries. The white matter is almost entirely composed of lipid-based myelin, but ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Rapid whole-brain imaging with single cell resolution

Apr 17, 2014

A major challenge of systems biology is understanding how phenomena at the cellular scale correlate with activity at the organism level. A concerted effort has been made especially in the brain, as scientists are aiming to ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

petrossa
not rated yet Mar 01, 2011
This pure plagiarism. :)
"The limbic system perceives danger, it prepares the body for the fight/flight response and the neocortex takes this up afterwards due to a complicated interpretative analyses of facial expression (the limbic system has control over that), body stance, muscle tension, heart rate, respiration,hormone levels and lastly visual and auditory clues.
In most cases where immediate action is deemed necessary by the limbic system it performs the required action, leaving the neocortex to figure out why the body landed a blow in someones face.
This gives rise to the thesis that ‘our’ consciousness is just along for the ride. Although ‘we’ can plan and act accordingly, when it comes to real-time environmental interaction its our other consciousness which calls the shots.
This has far reaching consequences for the premise of ‘free will’. Who has the free will, which consciousness we hold accountable.

Wrote this on my wordpress blog: Petrossa
petrossa
not rated yet Mar 01, 2011
doublepost
Caliban
not rated yet Mar 05, 2011
But what causes the "underdevelopment" of the amygdala? Is it prenatal factors? Is it heritable? Is it part of the natural variation in the species?

Fight/flight response is hardwired. As has been said many times before, if we had to reason our way through decisions that require immediate response, survival would be impacted.

While this does raise questions in terms of crime and punishment, it bears repeating that the author stated that impaired individuals still know the difference between right and wrong -they just don't weight their decision based on those values, at least so far as current findings go. Still, there has to be some method of preventing such individuals from committing more offenses -whether that be violent or passive, "white collar" crime.

I think that the question of free will is related, but not essential to this problem, again -based on current findings.

petrossa
not rated yet Mar 05, 2011
In my view that's the whole underlying issue with judgment. It's based on the fallacy that if you know right from wrong you are free to make a choice.

Which is just not true. People continuously the do things knowing it's wrong. Take smoking. By now everyone should be/is aware that it is a serious health hazard. They know it's wrong but their brains won't let them quit. So they make up excuses to justify behavior they themselves see as wrong.

Crime is no different in some cases. The primary control system makes the body do things which YOU know is wrong but you do it anyway because it's beyond your control.

I go out on a limb here and state that there's not a sole person who has not acted out of anger knowing normally it's wrong. From lashing out to verbal abuse.

frajo
not rated yet Mar 05, 2011
Take smoking. By now everyone should be/is aware that it is a serious health hazard. They know it's wrong but their brains won't let them quit. So they make up excuses to justify behavior they themselves see as wrong.
You are plain wrong by assuming that exposing oneself to a serious health hazard is plain wrong anywhere and anytime.
There are lots of situations - as well real as potential - where the "serious health hazard" is just the lesser evil. So people in these situations are doing nothing wrong.
Need I cite an example?
petrossa
5 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2011
If you feel like it. I just don't see what it has to do with the subject at hand. Going down the path of unraveling an analogy never lead anywhere but fruitless oneupmanship debates.

The issue is:
The idea is not you NEVER have a choice, the point is you can't be sure you HAD a choice.

As such to judge someones actions based on the premise that knowledge of right and wrong automatically implies freedom of choice is just not realistic given how the brain works.

More news stories

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Study says we're over the hill at 24

(Medical Xpress)—It's a hard pill to swallow, but if you're over 24 years of age you've already reached your peak in terms of your cognitive motor performance, according to a new Simon Fraser University study.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.