The Brainless

21. December 2009

A cold-blooded plan or just freaking out after a few words? What’s going on in young people’s minds when they let their hate run wild beating up their victims or even kill them? Not only psychologists are providing answers but also brain researcher might have some soon.

Sirens wail, policemen block off the area in a wide area. Special task forces finally manage to stop the violent perpetrator before he can injure more people or perhaps kill. Who does not think about the killing sprees like in Winnenden/Germany, Kauhajoki, Finland, Fort Lauderdale/US or the latest one in Germany in Ansbach, a small Bavarian town – the latest of the school shootings. What’s wrong with teenagers getting upset by just a few words starting to beat up their opponent in a blind rage? They stop only at the point when their “enemy” is on the ground.

Ninety percent have a psychological disorder and are legally insane?

Smokers activate their reward center in the brain as soon as they light a cigarette. Alcoholics do that with wine or beer. Teenagers with a potential for violence show similar answers in the amygdala and the ventral striatum when they watch others suffering from pain after an accident or during a fight. At the beginning of this year, Jean Decety at the Chicago University published the results of nuclear spin examinations of particularly violent boys age 16 to 18 in the professional magazine “Biological Psychology”. Normal teenagers do not show such a strong activation in the according parts of the brain.

Frank Schneider at the Aachen University took a closer look at the German prison at Brackwede I near Bielefeld. In a study with about 140 prisoners he found out that nine out of ten have psychological disorders or suffer from a personality disorder. And according offers for a therapy are normally missing in a place like that. The experience made with this study: Many violent perpetrators lack the ability for empathy – this feeling for the feeling of other people. Having no sense of guilt, punishment leaves them unimpressed. Can they be held responsible anyway? Or does their brain simply do what it wants and what it is meant for? German Criminal Code, paragraph 20: “When committing the crime due to a psychological disorder and not comprehending the wrong of his deed or not capable to act according to this realization, then the person is considered acting without guilt.” (freely translated).

Loss of control in the frontal lobes

Control over impulsive action is located in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain which does not allow emotions to get out of hand in amygdala and hypothalamus. Adults with lesions in this area are impulsive and unhibited at times. Antonio Damasio from Iowa/USA describes a patient surgeons had removed a tumor from the forehead at the age of three months. At the age of nine, the boy was extremely lethargic, quite frequently he “freaked out”. Hardly provoked he threatened people in his environment or attacked immediately. Under the protection of a caring home, his siblings grew up without such behavioural disorders. Damasio also reports about an additional example with a similar development about the victim of a car accident with a brain damage in the frontal lobe.

In 1972, an important study started in New Zealand regarding the development of the personality of a human being. Since then researchers observe nearly all one thousand teenagers of one age group starting at the age of three at the city of Dunedin. Alcohol and drugs are the main risk factors for a career of violence, in particular for young men. And the chances of those who got in touch with prison once decrease rapidly to get out of this vicious circle. Bernhard Gesch at Oxford University is sure that the conditions behind bars provide for a continuation of a violent career. His studies have shown that the prison food promotes aggressivity. A two-year study at the London Aylesbury Prison shows that targeted additions of vitamins and minerals in the food reduced attacks against fellow prisoners and prison officers for about a third. A follow-up study at the youth detention center at Falkirk/Scotland – Science reported about it recently – is now supposed to clear what exactly the prison food lacks and which additives would solve this effectively.

Escaping needs an alert mind

Especially the Omega 3 fatty acids seem to be important. They assist the nerve cells during the process of brain maturation and provide more alertness and impulse control. For example Adrian Reine of the University of Pennsylvania handed out Omega 4 pills to children in Philadelphia/USA and Singapore in Asia. He wants to study the effect of those pills in regard to propensity for violence. The American scientists managed to win even violent criminals – smart enough not to get caught by the police – over for their studies by providing absolute confidentiality. Compared to convicted criminals, their density of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex was a lot higher. The psychologists saw similar differences in murderers: Homicide in the heat of the moment seems to be connected to a lower serotonin metabolism and an according undersupply in this brain area while planned murder just like the misleading of the pursuers require an alert mind.

Thus a vitamin-rich diet might be an approach – in addition to being inexpensive – to prevent youth from many an act of violence. And the one who commits a crime in the full of his right mind might have to go through a brain scan and a serotonin test soon. It might get a lot tougher to fool experts and judges about his sanity.

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