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Brain Scans Reveal Markers For Violence

June 8, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Neuroradiology
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It’s not often that a study notes: “Participants were recruited from penitentiaries, forensic hospitals, psychiatric outpatient services, and communities in Germany.”

This particular study, published online Monday in Archives of General Psychiatry, used structural MRI to discover that men with violent criminal histories have larger gray matter volumes in certain areas of the brain. Men with a history of substance-abuse disorders were found to have reduced gray matter volume in other areas of the brain.

The scans showed that violent offenders had greater gray matter volumes than nonoffenders in mesolimbic areas but smaller gray matter volumes in the left anterior insula. Men with substance-abuse disorders had smaller gray matter volumes in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and premotor cortex.

The researchers, from Germany, Canada, and England, concluded:

The results from our study add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that structural abnormalities within the mesolimbic limbic reward system are associated with an early onset and stable pattern of antisocial behavior and the traits of psychopathy.

The study raises a lot of sticky questions:

  • Are the brain configurations associated with violence or substance abuse congenital or created by physical or emotional trauma?
  • If they’re caused, or can be caused, by trauma, then could parents or whoever else was responsible for the trauma be held legally responsible for the actions of the damaged individual?
  • Does everyone with those brain structures exhibit violent or substance-abusive behavior patterns, or must other triggering factors be present as well?
  • Could imaging be used to screen children, or adults, for violent or substance-abusive tendencies?
  • If such a screening comes up positive, what then? Could people be ordered to take counteractive medication? Could they be required to register as potential “violence offenders” or drug offenders?

How, as a society, do we want to answer those questions?

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