The field of neurocriminology is reviving some controversial
ideas. Can criminal urges really be blamed on the brain?
We are used to hearing talk of “the criminal mind”. In future we can expect to hear more about
“the criminal brain”. Recent scientific research suggests that criminality may be a trait tha t some
people are born with or acquire very early in life. It’s an unsettling thought: examine the
prefrontal cortex in the brain of a gurgling infant and you may see the signs of a potential future
Scholarly interest in the criminal cranium is by no means new. In 1871 the Italian physician and
intellectual Cesare Lombroso was performing a post-mortem on the body of a notorious bandit
named Giuseppe Villela when he became intrigued by the shape of the skull, which reminded
him of those of “apes, rodents and birds”. Lombroso had a flash of insight. “I seemed to see all
of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the
criminal,” he later wrote. He concluded that criminals were bad because they were born bad;
they were throwbacks to an earlier, more savage stage of our evolution.
Lombroso’s theories were soon discredited, and in the 20th century all attempts to link biology
with behaviour were tainted by association with eugenics and fascism. So criminologists turned
away from the study of individual biology and towards the social contexts of crime. The new
discipline of criminology became a branch of sociology, which for the most part it remains.
When politicians talk about “the causes of crime”, they usually mean factors such as poverty,
unemployment and bad neighbourhoods.
In recent years, however, advances in neuroscience and genetics have returned us to the idea that
our physical make-up exerts a profound influence on our behaviour. One result is the small but
fast-growing field of neurocriminology — the application of neuroscience to understanding
criminality. Its pioneer and leading light is Professor Adrian Raine, chair of the department of
criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Raine is a softly spoken man who retains the accent of his native Darlington, Co Durham. A
former prison psychologist, he has been investigating the subtle relationships between criminal
behaviour, brains and environments for nearly 30 years. For much of that time it has been a
lonely quest. Now, though, his hypothesis that “bad brains lead to bad behaviour” is gaining
credibility and attention.
Raine himself went through what he terms a “rough spot” when, as a ten-year-old in Darlington,
he joined a gang and took part in petty crimes. Some of his friends from that time graduated to
more serious offences and spent time in prison. As an adult, Raine wondered why he had not
followed the same path. Purely sociological explanations didn’t seem to fit. His scientific work
led him to seek answers inside the skull.
Lombroso may have been a poor scientist, Raine says, but he was right in one important sense:
the brains of criminals are often different from those of the rest of us. By studying brain scans of
prisoners, Raine has discovered, for example, that murderers, especially those who kill in the
heat of the moment, are more likely to have a poorly functioning prefrontal cortex. This is the
reasoning, decision-making section of the brain that helps to regulate impulses, including
feelings of aggression, rising up from the more “primitive” parts of the brain making up the
limbic system. We are all subject to violent instincts, but our prefrontal cortex helps most of us
to think better of them before we harm anyone. For a few, however, the neurological brakes are
Other violent criminals may suffer from a deficit of emotional capacity. Raine and his
collaborators carried out brain scans on people whom they determined to have psychopathic
personalities. The subjects were given a decision-making task while in the scanner. The dilemma
they were presented with is a diabolical scenario beloved of moral philosophers (it was also used
in the final episode of M*A*S*H). It’s wartime. You are hiding in the basement of a house with
fellow villagers. You can hear enemy soldiers outside, who you know have orders to kill anyone
they find. You are holding your own baby. Your baby has a cold. You know that if she coughs or
cries then the soldiers will find your hiding place, kill you, the baby, and all of your friends.
Should you smother your own baby or let it cough?
Don’t worry, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. In fact, the researchers weren’t interested in the
subjects’ choices so much as what was happening in their brains while they considered the
problem. Non-psychopathic individuals given this test display plenty of activity in parts of the
brain governing emotions. If you spent just a moment thinking about that horrible dilemma you
probably felt uneasy. The brain scans showed that the more psychopathic the individual, the less
activation the task produced in the amygdala and other emotion-regulating regions. In other
words, these subjects seemed to lack an emotional component to their moral decision-making
process. It’s often said that psychopaths are people who don’t know right from wrong. But that’s
not true — they could probably pass a test of moral reasoning as well as you or I. Their problem
is that they can’t feel right from wrong.
Raine doesn’t just want to understand the biological causes of violent crime: his aim is to find
more humane and effective ways to prevent it. Some of his work focuses on the facilitation of
better brain functioning in offenders. This might be simpler than it sounds. In an experiment
conducted in 2002 by Bernard Gesch, of the University of Oxford, prisoners convicted of violent
offences were fed fish-oil pills, a source of omega-3 fatty acids critical for brain functioning.
Among those who took it, the rate of offending in prison showed a significant decline.
But Raine’s real mission is to find ways of preventing children from growing up to be criminals.
His research suggests something that’s shocking, depressing and hopeful all at the same time:
you can look at the brain of very young children and, taking their upbringing into account, make
a pretty good guess as to how likely they are to become criminal adults. One of his studies
involved 1,800 three-year-old children from Mauritius. Raine wanted to test for another form of
emergency brake — fear. The children were played a neutral tone followed by a shocking,
unpleasant-sounding one. This was repeated until each child knew that as soon as they heard the
neutral tone, the nasty one would follow. For most, the first tone was enough to raise their pulse
rate and start a slight sweat. But a few showed little or no “anticipatory fear”. Raine and his
colleagues checked in with the same children 20 years later. The ones who lacked fear were
significantly more likely to have a criminal record.
Of course, not all children with poorly functioning fear responses will grow up to be criminals.
Much depends on what happens to them as they grow up. The infant brain is highly malleable
and is shaped by the immediate environment: home life, parenting and nutrition. The mature
brain is the result of these interactions; nature and nurture are intertwined. Research suggests that
the causes of anti-social behaviour are roughly 50 per cent genetic and 50 per cent down to the
environment, the latter including conditions in the womb and the child’s earliest experiences.
More than one study has found that the offspring of mothers who smoke or use alcohol heavily
during pregnancy are more likely, even after adjusting for social and economic factors, to
become violent criminals. Raine and colleagues looked at more than 4,000 Copenhagen males
who suffered from birth complications — forceps delivery, breech birth, lack of oxygen. The
researchers also established which of them had been rejected by their mothers in their first year,
and then, 18 years later, they looked up these men on Denmark’s criminal records database.
Neither birth complications nor maternal rejection alone had raised the odds of a subject
becoming a violent offender. But among individuals unlucky enough to suffer both misfortunes,
the proportion of violent criminals was more than double that among the rest of the subjects.
“It’s not biology versus environment,” says Raine. “It’s biology plus environment.” In his view,
unless criminologists take account of the contribution of biological and genetic processes to the
causes of crime, they’re missing a crucial chapter of the story. Lombroso was only half-right; so
are conventional criminologists.
Fear protects us from our own worst impulses, as does our capacity to reflect on our behaviour,
as do strong social networks. On occasion, those lacking these shields can benefit professionally,
as a jockey with no fear of the fences might win more races. But Raine believes that the absence
of these checks normally indicates a problem. He aims to help to identify children who, for a
combination of genetic, neurological, environmental and social reasons, lack such protections,
and who are therefore at a great risk of growing into a life of crime. “Once we know earlier in
life who the kids are who really need intervention, that’s when we’ll do a better job of stopping
future generations of crime,” he says.
Institutional resistance to the idea that neuroscience can inform the study of criminality has
declined. Lawrence Sherman, Wolfson Professor at the University of Cambridge Institute of
Criminology, says there has been a “sea change” within his field over the last 15 years. The
principle that our understanding of (anti-)social behaviour can be advanced by studying the brain
has become more widely accepted, in part because of Raine’s work. But at present, says
Sherman, neurocriminology is limited by what it can measure. We may not be able to
differentiate between a mugger and a murderer using a brain scan, and while technology can give
us a snapshot of the differences between brains, it’s less good at tracking changes in brain
chemistry during real-life situations — when a young man gets involved in a fight, or picks up a
gun. It may be decades before such things can be accurately gauged. “Neuroscience is allowing
us to lift the bonnet and look at the engine,” Sherman says, “but if you don’t understand the
principles of internal combustion, it’s hard to know how the car gets from A to B.”
If neurocriminology has become less controversial, the arguments over its implications have
barely begun. The idea that we derive criminal inclinations from our parents and early childhood
raises a host of knotty ethical, legal and social questions. Raine was recently asked to examine
the brain of a prisoner in Denver, Colorado, who had been convicted of the horrific rape and
murder of a young woman. He discovered that the killer had a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex.
This, in combination with the fact that the man had been brought up in poverty and abused and
raped as a child, persuaded Raine that the murderer was “a walking time bomb waiting to
explode”. Raine’s testimony helped to persuade a panel of judges to sentence the man to life
imprisonment rather than death. While he doesn’t underplay the heinousness of such offences,
Raine thinks that the nature of a criminal’s brain ought to be taken into account in sentencing.
“Free will is not as free as we think,” he says. For some people, “the dice are loaded”.
Ian Leslie blogs about politics, psychology and culture at marbury.typepad.com
Can Better Diet Prevent Antisocial Behavior?
1. Joan Arehart-Treichel
When children from an impoverished background receive adequate nutrition, increased
exercise, and an educational boost, it may keep them from engaging in antisocial behavior
A few months ago, C. Bernard Gesch of Oxford University and coworkers reported in the British
Journal of Psychiatry that vitamin-mineral-essential fatty acid supplements appeared capable of
dampening violence in a prison population (Psychiatric News, October 2, 2002). However, J.S.
Zil, M.D., J.D., chief forensic psychiatrist of the State of California Department of Corrections,
told Psychiatric News that he was skeptical of their results. To which Gesch replied: “I don’t feel
that Dr. Zil’s cynicism is a problem. It’s only natural to be cautious about such provocative
And now here comes another study with similar thought-provoking results. It suggests that
taking nutritional supplements during childhood might reduce antisocial behavior later.
The study was headed by Adrian Raine, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of
Southern California and a scientist noted for exploring the brain biology of criminals
(Psychiatric News, March 3, 2000). Raine reported the investigation at the 9th International
Congress on Schizophrenia Research, held recently in Colorado Springs, Colo., in a session on
the neurobiology and management of violence in schizophrenia. The study is also in press with
the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Adrian Raine, Ph.D.: “It could also be that it’s physical exercise, not better nutrition, that is the
This study, Raine explained, took place on a tropical island where the standard of living was
quite low. It included 176 3-year-old children. Half the children served as a control group and
received, from ages 3 through 5, their usual diets, usual exercise, and usual education. The other
half served as an experimental group and received good nutrition, increased exercise, and an
educational boost. The educational boost consisted of efforts to improve verbal skills,
visuospatial skills, visuomotor coordination, creativity, conceptual skills, memory skills, and
sensation and perception.
Raine and his colleagues then tested the subjects for conduct disorder when they reached 17
years of age and found that there was significantly less conduct disorder in the experimental
group. They also found that this effect was especially prevalent in the experimental subjects who
had been malnourished at the start of the study.
Raine and his coworkers again assessed subjects for criminal behavior at age 23. Self-reported
crime was significantly reduced, by about 34 percent, compared with the control group. There
was a trend for official crime to be statistically reduced to about a third of the levels of the
Thus, environmental enrichment appeared to reduce the incidence of conduct disorder, and
perhaps also of criminal behavior, in these disadvantaged children, Raine and his colleagues
Peter Buckley, M.D., chair of psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia and chair of the
congress session, described the results as “provocative.” E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., of the Stanley
Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., the discussant for the session, said, “Something is
going on in those children.”
E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.: “Something is going on in these children.”
The question is, of course, what?
Raine told Psychiatric News that the educational boost given the subjects may have made a
difference. He also said, however, that he suspects that education is not the explanation since
“past attempts [at using education to prevent antisocial behavior] have not been very successful
in producing long-term change.”
He said that exercise may have made a difference, since Salk Institute scientists recently found
that rodents that exercised early in life had enhanced growth of neurons in the brain’s
And how about nutrition? This is the explanation that Raine favors, particularly fatty acid
supplementation. The experimental group ate lots of fish, he noted. Fish are rich in omega-3 and
omega-6 fatty acids, and these acids influence the levels of serotonin and dopamine and are
deficient in violent offenders. ▪
hildhood nutrition protects mental health
Related topics: Research
An infant's diet, known to be important for early mental development, may also play a significant
role in the risk for mental illness or criminal behaviour in later life, suggests a new study.
The study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that
children aged three to five years old who took part in an 'enrichment programme', including
healthy diet, exercise and pre-school education, were less likely to develop personality disorders
and antisocial behaviour in their late teens, and were also less likely to show criminal behaviour
at age 23, than control subjects.
The benefits of the enrichment were much stronger in children who were poorly nourished
before the study started, reported the researchers, suggesting that good nutrition was the active
ingredient in the prevention programme.
"Parents often feel helpless as though there's nothing they can do to ward off mental illness,"
said Adrian Raine, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina and leader of the
project. "Our results clearly show there are several proactive steps parents can take."
In the study, among the first to look at ways of preventing psychotic disorders, 83 three-year-
olds from the island of Mauritius were fed hot meals, given two-and-a-half hours of daily
exercise and treated to intense cognitive stimulation over a two-year period in a pre-school
Compared to 355 children who received no special treatment, the enriched group at 17 years of
age had 31.9 per cent reduction in schizotypal personality, a precursor to schizophrenia. Those
who received the intervention also had a 27.9 per cent reduction in antisocial behaviour problems
at age 17.
And the crime rate was cut by 35 per cent at age 23.
When the study was launched, the two sets of children did not differ in their nutritional status.
The children in the control group were fed a traditional Mauritian diet, high in starches,
including mostly bread and rice.
The enriched group was fed fish, chicken or mutton and salad for lunch. They were given milk
breaks and morning fruit juices. They also had an afternoon nap.
"This suggests that proper nutrition, exercise and cognitive stimulation in preschool very likely
will create better behavior 20 years later," Raine said. "Perhaps what is critical is the
establishment of good habits early on in life - when the brain is growing. The implication for
society is that we may have identified some of the building blocks of schizophrenia and crime."
This is not first time that diet has been connected to criminal behaviour. Previous research in the
UK has investigated the impact of vitamins and other nutrients on behaviour of criminals. The
current study suggests that government investment in children's health can benefit society as a
"One of the best changes society could make is to invest in the early years of childhood, when
children's brains are more amenable to change. A small investment now will reap big returns
later," added Raine.
Adrian Raine presented his study at conference on Psychiatry and the Problem of Evil organised
by Sheffield University, UK this week.
Early nutrient deficiency may increase
Related topics: Research, Cognitive and mental function
Malnutrition in the first few years of life leads to antisocial and aggressive behaviour
throughout childhood and late adolescence, report US researchers.
Their study, thought to be the first to show that deficiency in nutrients like iron, protein and B
vitamins in infancy can cause behaviour problems right up until the end of teenage years, adds to
the evidence showing the value of healthy diets for children.
It suggests that diet play a role in preventing antisocial behaviour.
"Identifying the early risk factors for this behaviour in childhood and adolescence is an
important first step for developing successful prevention programs for adult violence," explained
the lead author of the study, Jianghong Liu, a postdoctoral fellow with the University of South
California's Social Science Research Institute.
Writing in this month's issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry (161:2005-2013), the
authors describe following the nutritional, behavioural and cognitive development of more than
1,000 children living on Mauritius over a 14-year period. The sample included children with
Indian, Creole, Chinese, English and French ethnicities.
Researchers assessed their nutrition at age three, looking particularly at conditions that would
reflect deficiency of the B vitamin riboflavin, protein, zinc and iron.
The children's intelligence level and cognitive ability were also tested, and follow-up at ages
eight, 11 and 17 years involving interviews with parents and teachers to examine how the
children were behaving in school and at home.
Over time, a link became evident between malnourishment and antisocial or aggressive
behaviour, said study co-author Adrian Raine.
Compared to those in the control group, the malnourished children showed a 41 per cent increase
in aggression at age eight, a 10 per cent increase in aggression and delinquency at age 11 and a
51 per cent increase in violent and antisocial behaviour at age 17.
While social class did not play a significant factor in behaviour, intelligence level did, Raine
"Poor nutrition, characterized by zinc, iron, vitamin B and protein deficiencies, leads to low IQ,
which leads to later antisocial behaviour," he said. "These are all nutrients linked to brain
Researchers also found that the more indicators of malnutrition there were, the greater the
The implications of the findings are significant when the levels of iron deficiency in many
populations are taken into account. Iron deficiency is the UK's most common nutritional
disorder. In the US, 7 per cent of toddlers suffer from iron deficiency, a number that jumps to
between 9 per cent and 16 per cent in adolescent and female groups.
Iron deficiency is between 19-22 per cent in black and Mexican American females, he said.
"This is a problem in America. It's not just a problem in the far-away Indian Ocean," Raine said.
"If it's causal, there's an intervention implication there. At a societal level, should parents be
thinking more about what kids are eating?"
The study also suggests that antisocial behaviour may be preventable.
"There's more to antisocial behavior than nutrition, but we argue that it is an important missing
link," Raine said. "Biology is not destiny. We can change the biological disposition to antisocial
and aggressive behaviour."
fish may reduce criminal aggressiveness
• Mental health and Psychiatry news • May 31, 2008
When they’re released from prison, inmates might want
to increase their intake of fish or take omega-3
supplements to curb aggressive behaviors and reduce the risk of relapse, a leading psychologist
suggested here last week.
“Why not try it? What would be the harm?” said Dr. Adrian Raine, professor of Criminology,
Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, speaking at the IV Brazilian
Congress of Brain, Behavior and Emotions.
“Omega-3 fatty acids...have been shown to improve the functioning of brains and reduce violent
behaviors,” he told Reuters Health. “And actually, American prisoners eat very little fish.”
The proposal is based on a growing but controversial body of
evidence that attributes criminality to biological factors, such as a
genetically driven dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex. Biological
predisposition might explain at least 50 percent of criminal behavior, Raine estimates.
In this context, nutritional intervention in prisoners might become a “naturalistic” way of helping
change brains at risk. “It might not only reduce (further) serious offending, but could also make
prisoners more amenable to other treatments, such as cognitive behavior therapy,” he said.
Raine based his hypothesis upon the results of some “compelling” trials in children and adults,
he said. A 2002 study conducted with 231 young English prisoners showed that taking
nutritional supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids, for at least 2 weeks, was associated with
a 35 percent reduction in offenses after 5 months.
In another study, conducted by Raine and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in
2003, children aged 3 to 5 participated in an “environmental enrichment” program, including a
fish-enriched diet, physical activity and cognitive stimulation. Twenty years later, it was found
that the crime rate in the intervention group had been lowered by 35 percent.
A third trial, published in 2005, showed that normal 8-to-11 year-old children reduced their
aggressive behavior by taking omega-3 fatty acids supplements for only 4 months.
In addition, a 2001 cross-national ecological analysis found a direct link between seafood intake
and lower murder rates.
A nutritional intervention, perhaps combined with some cognitive behavior therapy, might work
not only in prisoners but also in aggressive children and others at risk for antisocial behaviors.
“Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids improve brain structures and attention abilities. And maybe
(violent people) need better brains to learn instructions to regulate their emotions,” Raine said.
Effective dosages of omega-3 or fish intake to prevent antisocial conduct or criminal relapses are
unknown, but about 1 g/d of omega-3 or two to three meals of fish a week might be needed, the
Bernard Gesch, researcher in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford
University and director of Natural Justice, an Oxford-based research charity that investigates the
social and physical causes of offending behavior, thinks that Raine’s suggestion is interesting.
“But nutrition is about balance. Many nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, have already
been implicated in behavioral change when lacking in the diet. Omega-3 is but one,” Gesch told
Reuters Health via email.
Gesch, lead author of the 2002 English trial that investigated the impact of nutritional
supplements on the behavior of young prisoners, said that his group is about to start a much
larger study with 1000 prisoners, funded by the Wellcome Trust.
“It will take around 2 years to complete. We are not only retesting to see if nutrition affects
behavior, but also to explore how it works,” he said. “It is a simple approach to prevent antisocial
behavior, and the only ‘risk’ from a better diet is better health.”
According to data from the US Department of Justice obtained for 15 states, almost 70 percent of
released prisoners are re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years. Eventually,
47 percent of all former prisoners are again convicted for a crime, and 25 percent are sent to
prison with a new sentence.
By Matias A. Loewy
BENTO GONCALVES, Brazil (Reuters Health)
source: Armenian Medical Network