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Mad or Bad? Does it Matter?

Posted by Dr. Dorothy McCoy on December 5, 2011 at 11:20 PM

By Douglas Quan

Impulsive, manipulative and lacking remorse, criminal psychopaths typically face longer and harsher sentences in the justice system.

But a growing body of research shows that their aberrant behaviour may be linked to faulty wiring in the brain, challenging the assumption that psychopaths are intrinsically evil and raising questions about how they should be dealt with when they break the law.

Should criminal psychopaths — who make up 15% to 25% of the prison population, according to estimates — be held accountable to the same degree as offenders who don’t have the same brain abnormalities? Are they victims of their biology?

The debate is roiling across the fields of criminology, law, philosophy and neuroscience.


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.“I don’t think there is a consensus. I think that there is a lot of confusion,” said Heidi Maibom, an associate professor of philosophy at Carleton University.

A study led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience is likely to add fuel to the debate.

The researchers scanned the brains of inmates from a local prison, focusing on two key areas: the almond-shaped amygdala, which helps to detect fear and mediate anxiety, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for more complex social emotions, such as guilt, empathy and regret.

One set of data showed that the white fibres connecting these two areas of the brain were weaker in the brains of psychopaths compared to other offenders. Another set of data showed that electro-chemical signals emitted by these two areas were less coordinated in the brains of psychopaths.

“What the science suggests is this is a brain-based disorder and that the neural dysfunction may undermine the ability of these individuals to control their social behaviour and regulate their emotions,” said Mike Koenigs, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the school.

Kelly Doering / Stick People

Mike Koenigs.

.While scientists can’t say with certainty that these brain abnormalities are the cause of the disorder, they now at least know what area of the brain may be associated with it, he said.

Instead of simply treating psychopaths like they’re all axe-wielding madmen, such as the Jack Nicholson character in the psychological horror flick The Shining, they should be viewed as patients with neuro-cognitive disorders who may benefit from treatment, Mr. Koenigs said.

“We’re not talking about turning them into Mother Teresa,” Mr. Koenigs said. But with cognitive behavioural therapy and drug therapy, it is possible they could become “a little more responsible.”

While the science is far from conclusive, that hasn’t stopped some defence lawyers from using data from brain scans to try to persuade judges or juries that their clients are incapable of making the right decisions.

In 2009, Brian Dugan pleaded guilty in Illinois to raping and murdering 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in the early 1980s. Dugan, who was already serving two life sentences for murder, faced the death penalty.

In an effort to save him from execution, Dugan’s lawyers turned to Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico who has amassed 2,000 brain-scan images from prisoners.

They asked Mr. Kiehl to interview Dugan and scan his brain in the hopes of convincing a jury that Dugan couldn’t control his impulses.

Mr. Kiehl found evidence that Dugan was emotionally abnormal from an early age and that his ability to feel and understand emotions was impaired. The brain-scan data was consistent with these emotional problems.

“It’s amazing to people that somebody can have no empathy, not even know what it is, have no visceral response, have no understanding of guilt,” Mr. Kiehl said in an interview. “It’s a real disorder. It’s as profound as any other mental illness.”

The jury wasn’t swayed and sentenced Dugan to death. (The death sentence was commuted this year, however, after the state of Illinois abolished the death penalty.)


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