Monday, December 24, 2012

Explaining the brain of a killer: Science offers clues

By Maggie Fox, NBC News
Dec. 25, 2012

Genetics alone almost certainly cannot explain what went wrong when 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, two classrooms full of small children and teachers and then himself on Dec. 14, experts say.


"The genes by themselves don’t tell you. If you just have a PET scan or MRI you can’t tell," Fallon said. "The psych report alone won't tell you. You put those things together you really get a lot of information." And some of what's been found by Fallon and other researchers provides some surprising insights.


There is something that many violent people do have in common, however. Research done by Teicher, Fallon and others shows that violent criminals are, in fact, excessively anxious and fearful.

“Individuals at risk for violence often suffer from tremendous anxiety,” Teicher said. “It’s one of the most striking things I have noticed.” He’s treated high school students expelled or suspended for violence, but when they are in his office, they are anything but threatening.

“These are the frightening children in high school, yet they are essentially sitting in their mother’s laps,” Teicher said. “They were ridden with anxiety.”

And in some cases, this is combined with an inability to “read” other people. Teicher’s found this in some patients.

“We found differences in the (brain) cortex of violence-exposed individuals that play a role in social perception,” Teicher said. “These are regions involved in being able to infer what other people are thinking.” Brain scans show that the blood isn’t flowing normally in those brain regions. “They may be prone to misattribute thoughts and feelings,” Teicher says.

Such deficiencies can be immensely stressful to a young man or teenager, Fallon says. “He looks at people and doesn’t understand what they are feeling,” he said.

On top of this, Teicher has seen differences in parts of the brain’s frontal cortex that are involved in impulse control. “Misreading people and having difficulty controlling impulses may foster inappropriate actions,” Teicher says.

And while schizophrenia or bipolar disease do not usually lead to violent behavior, they can contribute to dangerous acts if patients are also racked with anxiety and not getting any sort of treatment.

“The late teens, early 20s, are when people have these psychotic breaks," Fallon said.


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