7 March 2013, 17:57

Born to be bad: Neuroscientist discovers part of human brain responsible for criminal behaviour

Born to be bad: Neuroscientist discovers part of human brain responsible for criminal behaviour

Last month, reports of Dr Gerhard Roth’s discovery caused something of a stir among the global scientific elite. By performing brain scans on violent convicts, the expert from the University of Bremen's Brain Research Institute in Germany, has allegedly discovered the region of the human brain responsible for criminal behaviour in humans. The Voice of Russia reviews the controversial discovery.

Studying the implications of brain psychotraumatization for criminal behaviour in humans, Dr Gerhard Roth discovered recently that some people might actually be ‘born to be criminal’. In his experiments Dr Roth showed short video clips of murder scenes to a group of violent killers, rapists and robbers, while simultaneously monitoring their brain activity. After studying the results Dr Roth found that most criminals had a dark mass in the lower central lobe of the brain that prevented feelings of empathy or sadness while watching the violent scenes. Dr Roth also observed that when the ‘evil patch’ responsible for criminal behaviour was damaged, as a result of brain trauma or a tumour, people became less prone to violence or criminality. As a result, the researcher concluded that some criminals had a ‘biological predisposition’ to violence and to anti-social behaviour more generally.

Dr Roth cited a 66 percent probability of an adolescent with such a brain abnormality becoming a criminal, though the doctor does not claim that this predisposition to criminality is exclusively biological. While biology plays a crucial role in the process of becoming a criminal, whether or not a person actually does so also depends on the parental environment and access to social support.

One of the main criticisms of Dr Roth’s research was the fact that ‘the central lobe’ doesn't exist in the human brain. Indeed, each side of the brain consists of four different lobes: the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes, it would seem therefore that, either the German scientist has found a completely new area of the human brain, which would in itself be a revolutionary discovery, or his findings lack scientific merit.

At the same time though, Dr Roth’s study should not be discredited. Despite deep skepticism about the scientist’s report, past research indicates that the brains of some criminals can indeed be significantly different from the norm; according to a 2009 brain study of 27 psychopathic individuals, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, people suffering from this condition have pronounced deformities in the amygdala. More specifically, the psychopaths’ brain scans showed an 18 percent reduction in volume of this area and a substantial thinning of the outer layer of the amygdala’s cortex. It was later found that the amygdala is central to controlling human emotion. Because psychopaths are known to have difficulties with feelings such as remorse or guilt, it seems reasonable to believe that this part of a psychopathic brain could indeed be significant deformed. Another study, that examined people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, a condition found in most convicted criminals, found an 18 percent reduction in the volume of the middle frontal gyrus and a 9 percent reduction in volume of the orbital frontal gyrus. The two regions are contained within the frontal lobe and are supposedly deeply connected with moral processing, the human ability to differentiate between right and wrong.

On a more general note, it is important that research into any biological differences in criminals should continue. If it can be proved that there is a neurological basis to criminal behaviour in people, not only will it be possible to learn, at an early age, about an individual being prone to criminality, but it may also be possible to ‘treat’ the problem and provide help and support to prevent the realisation of that biological potential. The human brain is extremely flexible and there are many parts of it that are not fixed until adulthood. Neurogenesis, or brain plasticity, can occur even at the age of 25. If an individual is found to be biologically likely to become a criminal, intervention along his or her developmental pathway could make a big difference. In some cases, brain surgery might not be necessary, social intervention could be just as effective as more invasive methods. Fontaine’s studies, for instance, suggest that children displaying limited emotions do not respond well to punishment; instead, parenting methods that reward good behaviour with positive reinforcement seem to work better. Medicinal intervention could also be an option; investigations are underway to determine the effectiveness of supplementary omega-3 fatty acid pills, usually called ‘fish oil’, at helping children who display antisocial traits. Fish oil is a nutrient that is used in cell growth and it may also help some brain cells to grow, regulating brain-growth deficiencies.

All in all, with such a wide variety of ongoing research into criminal behaviour, perhaps the human race might well be heading toward a times when criminality will truly become a thing of the past.

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