'I have the brain of a serial killer'

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Fiona MacDonald

Inside the brain of a serial killer.

Inside the brain of a serial killer. Photo: Getty images

If things had gone a bit differently, neurocriminologist Adrian Raine could easily have been a murderer, or a rapist – or perhaps both, he explains. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Raine has spent his career attempting to prove that certain biological traits make some people more likely to commit a violent crime than their peers. “I’ve scanned my brain and it looks like the brain of a man who killed 64 people,” he says. “I have a number of the risk factors that predict someone is likely to end up violent.”

Thankfully, Raine hasn’t killed anyone, but from the controversy his work has caused, you could be forgiven for thinking he had. He has spent 35 years fighting to get his research funded and published and even had to move from the UK to the United States to get a job, where overcrowded prisons mean research on criminals is more accepted.

In his new book, The Anatomy of Violence: the Biological Roots of Crime, Raine raises the ethically fraught question of whether we should use these biological clues to identify potential criminals and intervene. Would we abort a child with these genetic factors? And if they do exist, does it mean crime is a disease to be treated, rather than an act to be punished?

Much of the resistance to Raine’s work comes from its eerie similarity to eugenics. As a result, work like Raine’s has been largely suppressed, and there are only a handful of scientists around the world – and none in Australia – researching the biology of violence. “I think we have guilty knowledge,” says Raine. “It’s beyond reasonable doubt that genetic and biological factors contribute to violence, but we’re not doing anything. There’s blood on our hands.”

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For the past century, Raine says, scientists have only looked at one side of the violence coin – the social factors that lead to crime. “That is important, but turn the coin over and there’s a whole can of worms in genetics and biology. Unless we look at that, we’ll never develop successful prevention programs,” he insists.

Professor Peter Schofield, a geneticist and chief executive of Neuroscience Research Australia, believes it’s reasonable to say there’s a genetic contribution to violent crime. “But it’s simplistic to think we’ll be able to test for it,” he says. “When we first started looking at the genes behind mental health, the expectation was there would be one or a small number involved, but we’ve since realised it’s incredibly complex.”

This means it’s unlikely there will ever be a “crime gene” we can search for mutations in, like we currently do with the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and 2. But Raine believes there are things we can look for. Research has found a low-resting heart rate, poor frontal lobe function, high testosterone and dry, chapped lips during childhood (a sign of vitamin B2 deficiency) are all predictors of someone becoming a violent criminal.

In fact, Raine’s research has found a low-resting heart rate, which indicates a lack of fear, is a better indicator of someone’s potential to be violent than smoking is of causing lung cancer. But, interestingly, these biological factors only increase someone’s risk of becoming a criminal when they’re associated with a neglectful childhood. In fact, they can even be caused by social factors such as neglect or by complications during pregnancy or birth. The frontal lobe, for example, which is the area of the brain that controls impulses and emotion, is easily damaged by malnutrition or abuse.

“If a mother smokes during pregnancy, her offspring is twice as likely to grow up to be a violent offender,” says Raine. Similarly, he adds, a baby with foetal alcohol syndrome has been shown to have a 50 per cent chance of being arrested when they grow up.

“I had poor nutrition, birth complications, a low-resting heart rate,” he says. “But I always had parents who were there for me.”

Raine is living proof that our biology isn’t fate, but is it ethical to intervene in someone’s life before they’ve done anything wrong? Discussing the implications of this kind of research is a slippery slope – at the extreme end is a world where children are tested and locked up, or aborted before birth, if results suggest they might be likely to become a killer.

Raine thinks there is potential in testing for criminality, but believes subjects should be rehabilitated instead of locked away. “If a child has an IQ below 70, we give them special treatment,” he says. “In the future, maybe the bottom 5 per cent of the population in terms of frontal lobe function should be treated differently, given their inability to regulate impulses and emotion.”

Raine cites studies that show a mix of medication, nutritional supplements and behavioural therapies can improve the behaviour of offenders. Recent breakthroughs have also shown we can regrow brain cells through a process known as neuroplasticity. “If someone has a damaged frontal lobe,” says Peter Schofield, “it’s possible that perhaps another part of the brain could pick up the function through training.”

Raine’s work also raises issues for the justice system. Could biology become another insanity defence? On the flip side, Sydney-based neuro-psychologist and barrister Hayley Bennett believes that while proving “biology made me do it” can reduce people’s sentences, it might also help put suspects away for life.

Raine believes one of the greatest ways his research could benefit society is by identifying who is safe to be let out of prison. In Australia, 60 per cent of people in jail have been arrested before, so it’s clear – especially in light of the sentencing of Adrian Bayley, who murdered Melbourne woman Jill Meagher and had been previously incarcerated – that we need to overhaul the way we assess who should be released.

Brain-imaging studies suggest that using biological factors to assess inmates applying for parole could be effective in predicting re-offenders. “In one study,” says Raine, “prisoners about to be released were scanned. Those who had poorer frontal lobe function were twice as likely to be re-arrested for a crime in the next four years.” His research team also found men with a small amygdala – a region of the brain shown to be diminished in psychopaths – were three times more likely than the rest of the population to commit violent crime in the next three years.

While we may still be a way off from spotting criminals before they commit a crime, there is one message to take from Raine’s research: neglect leaves a biological trail on the body. Setting aside Brave New World-style testing and intervention, perhaps the best we can do to prevent crime is to protect children’s brains.
Unfortunately, it may be easier to come up with a high-tech way to fix a damaged human brain than it is to solve the social problems that write violence into children, generation after generation.  

From Good Weekend