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Brain Scans May Predict Future Criminal Behavior

February 24, 2011

Dr. Nathalie Fontaine, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington DC this week, argued that children as young as four years of age exhibited “callous unemotional traits” such as lack of guilt and empathy that could suggest future criminal behavior, reports The Telegraph.

Linking these features with “conduct problems” such as throwing tantrums could be a strong way to predict who could be anti-social in later life.

Dr. Fontaine, along with Prof. Adrian Raine, a British criminologist, argue that, by predicting which children have the potential to be trouble, treatments could be introduced to keep them on the straight and narrow. If the tests are accurate enough then a form of screening could be introduced in the same way we test for some diseases.

Dr. Raine claims that abnormal physical brain make-up could be a cause of criminality, as well as helping to predict it. Showing studies that have shown psychopaths and criminals have smaller areas of the brain such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, both of which regulate and control emotion and behavior.

He also believes that there is another strong indicator, a lack of conditioning to fear punishment, which can be measured in toddlers before disruptive behavior is apparent. Both speakers said that identifying these issues earlier could be important in stopping children from becoming criminals.

“If we could identify those children early enough, we could help them as well as their families,” Dr. Fontaine said, and she also finds a correlation between risk factors at a young age and bad behavior at an older age.

Dr. Fontaine, from Indiana University, said the work showed that punishment did not necessarily work and that reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishing bad might be the solution.

Using data from more than 9,000 twins from the Twins Early Development Study, a survey of twins born in the UK between 1994 and 1996, Dr. Fontaine assessed that callous unemotional traits and conduct problems were based on teacher questionnaires when the children were seven, nine and twelve years of age. Information was taken from parents when the children were as young as four.

Dr. Raine, a former Home Office psychologist who works at the University of Pennsylvania, said therapy could include counseling and boosting the brain with drugs or foods rich in Omega 3.

Acknowledging the ethical implications of treating children before they had done anything wrong, Dr. Raine argued that “biological” causes of crime could not be ignored. “We could be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand but I believe we have to pursue the causes of crime at a biological and genetic level as well as at a social,” he said.

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