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Markers for crime raise thorny questions

Now that we know that the structure of some people's brains, the chemistry of their bodies, puts them at higher risk to commit crimes, what should we as a society do about it?

Psychologist Adrian Raine , a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, has written his first book for a lay audience. It will be available Tuesday. APRIL SAUL / Staff
Psychologist Adrian Raine , a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, has written his first book for a lay audience. It will be available Tuesday. APRIL SAUL / StaffRead more

Now that we know that the structure of some people's brains, the chemistry of their bodies, puts them at higher risk to commit crimes, what should we as a society do about it?

That's the question that University of Pennsylvania professor Adrian Raine would like people to think about as they read his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, The Biological Roots of Crime. The book highlights Raine's research on what makes bad guys physically different, but also discusses how environmental factors such as the quality of parenting and nutrition interact with physical risks to make things better or worse.

The findings raise disquieting questions about what constitutes justice when, as Raine says, "for some people, the dice are loaded early in life." There also is the threat of discrimination and abuse once scientists can use brain scans or physical tests to identify toddlers who could be serial killers.

Raine, a compact Brit who came to Penn in 2007 from the University of Southern California, throws out some provocative ideas for interventions - mandatory parenting classes, special training for high-risk kids, parenting licenses, meditation, psychiatric drugs, less punitive confinement for criminals - in the book but doesn't make his own opinions clear.

"On some things, I just don't know," he conceded over a cup of tea in his office at the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology. "Readers want a message at the end, and, at the end, I'm very ambivalent."

The father of 11-year-old twin boys, Raine thinks parenting classes are a good idea. "Heck, we need a new generation of better parents," he said. "It's not right to stick the next generation of kids with bad parents." A crime victim himself - he says he once was assaulted in Turkey by two men - Raine wants criminals off the streets, but thinks they should have better treatment, and the right to "vote and to procreate." He wouldn't stick his neck out on the parental license idea. "Sure," he said good- naturedly, "I'm a scared rabbit."

Raine, 59, a psychologist, is a pioneer in the field he calls neurocriminology. He has done much of his work with imprisoned murderers and serial killers, but also has studied temp workers (they're more likely to be psychopaths) and children. He is currently testing whether cognitive behavioral therapy and omega 3 supplements can make children less antisocial and aggressive. This book, which will be available Tuesday, is his first intended for a lay audience.

Raine entered the field when the nurture side of the nature-nurture argument was in its heyday. At that time, many experts were looking at the impact of poverty and other environmental factors on crime. Raine says he was branded a racist in 1993 when one of his studies found a correlation between birth complications (a surrogate for potential brain injury) and mother/child bonding issues with higher risk for criminal behavior. Never mind that the study analyzed birth records for 4,000 Caucasians in Denmark. Now, he said, crime experts are much more likely to accept that criminal behavior, like many illnesses, results from a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental risk factors.

"They are on the right path, in part," he said of those who study the nurture part of the equation. "All I'm saying is that there's another path. There's biology, and that has to be recognized."

Matthew DeLisi, a criminal justice professor at Iowa State University, said Raine has been "very instrumental" in moving criminology toward a multidisciplinary model.

Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said Raine's work is considered "scientifically sound and extremely objective." Researchers now generally accept that biology plays an important role. If there are concerns, he said, they're more likely to be about "how that information gets used to make public policy."

Raine understands the concerns. He quotes another criminologist, who told him, "No good can ever come of genetic research on crime." Still, he says a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, a biological risk factor, is 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than a child without. "Are we going to ignore that?"

An engaging talker with slightly bushy hair, Raine once planned to be a schoolteacher. He grew up in a working-class part of England. His mother sold ice cream, and his father was a bricklayer.

He was intrigued by antisocial children in part because he had been one himself. From 9 to 11, he was setting fire to mail, fighting, and smoking cigarettes. Then he became shy and withdrawn. He had no friends in his teens. "I know I don't present that way," he said. "I've changed."

Under different circumstances, he might have been one of the people he studies, but he thinks his stable, loving parents saved him.

His studies have found reduced activity in the cortexes of murderers. That's the part that makes decisions and puts the brakes on impulsive behavior and strong emotions. Randy Kraft, a serial killer he studied, had good frontal lobe activity, likely a necessity for planning and getting away with multiple murders. But like other murderers - and Raine himself - he also had more activity in subcortical regions, which are associated with emotion.

He's also studied the brains of psychopaths and found they have less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex and smaller amygdalas, a part of the brain that processes emotion. Asked to ponder a difficult moral question, Raine said they knew right from wrong, but showed less activation in the amygdala than normal people. "Emotion is the engine that drives moral behavior," he said.

Other studies found that children with low heart rates are more prone to criminal behavior. The theory is that that they feel less anxiety and fear than the rest of us. (Lest you wonder about young athletes, Raine said it's actually quite difficult to reduce heart rate with exercise.)

All of this is interesting, but scientists are a long way from knowing who will turn to violent crime. "There's never going to be perfect prediction. Never," Raine said.

While studies show that about half of antisocial behavior is genetic, that means half of it isn't. Raine is hopeful that interventions can change the brain and improve decision-making. "Biology's not destiny," he said.

The work has advanced far enough, though, to make one wonder how to fairly punish those whose brains don't work like most people's. How much choice did they have? "Free will," Raine said, "is not as free as we all think it is."