Tahlequah Daily Press

Get the scoop!

October 18, 2012

Slate: Should we screen kids' brains and genes to ID future criminals?

If you read judicial opinions in serious crime cases, which always seem to describe every gruesome and salacious detail, you will almost surely reach two conclusions. First, no "normal" person could ever commit many of the horrific acts described in those cases. Second, everyone involved would be so much better off if we could have somehow anticipated and prevented those crimes from occurring in the first place.

The perpetrators themselves might be leading normal lives if their violent tendencies were identified and treated before they committed their crimes. Even more importantly, the innocent victims, as well as their loved ones, would of course greatly benefit from not having been murdered or assaulted.

The idea that we could prevent crime by identifying and treating minors predisposed to violent behavior has long been contemplated and debated. Leon Kass, who would later chair President Bush's Bioethics Commission, wrote in Science in 1971 that while he served in the federal government in the 1960s a proposal was "tendered and supported high in government" that called for the psychological testing of all 6-year-olds in the nation to detect "future criminals and misfits." The proposal was rejected because the then-available tests of future criminal behavior lacked sufficient predictive accuracy.

But in the future, asked Kass, "will such a proposal be rejected if reliable tests become available?"

We are now reaching a critical juncture where scientific developments in both genetics and neuroscience may soon be able to identify children with a greatly increased risk of engaging in future violent activity. In the genetics field, mutations in the MAOA gene, in combination with an abusive upbringing in the early years of life, substantially increase the risk of future antisocial and violent conduct. In the original study by Avshalom Caspi and colleagues, 85 percent of males who had the mutated form of the MAOA gene, combined with severe mistreatment in the early years of life, engaged in some form of antisocial behavior, whereas fewer than 20 percent of children with the normal MAOA allele and the same abusive environment engaged in such behavior. This type of study with the MAOA gene has been repeated many times now, with most of the follow-up studies replicating the original findings.

To date, the genetic risk associated with MAOA mutations has been used in the legal system primarily as mitigating evidence (with only limited success to date) to reduce the sentence of a criminal with the genetic predisposition. Obviously, in these cases, the crime has already been committed.

But perhaps we could look for that genetic marker before any crime is committed - and there are other red flags we can look for as well. For instance, Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania found that a brain abnormality (called cavum septum pellucidum) detected in the fetus was associated with subsequent antisocial behaviors. Another study found that poor fear conditioning (which is the anxiety most of us learn to feel when we do something antisocial) at age 3, indicative of amygdala dysfunction, predisposes individuals to crime at age 23. Yet another study used functional MRI to identify brain patterns correlated with increased impulsivity in incarcerated juveniles. This is just a small sampling of a growing body of experimental findings linking neurological traits with criminal propensity in children.

Such tests are never likely to be deterministic or completely accurate. They will identify only increased probabilities of violent behaviors, not certainties. But before we get much further down this road, we need to start thinking about whether and how we want to use this capability to identify at-risk children.

               

There are many obvious detriments and risks in trying to identify such children. First, the data we have are based primarily on group averages, and when applied to individuals, they will result in both false positives and false negatives. Second, there is a long history of eugenic and racist attempts to use biological characteristics to discriminate, creating understandable concerns about going down that road again. Third, tagging a child as a potential future criminal will have many kinds of detrimental psychological impacts for that child and those who interact with him. Fourth, there will undoubtedly be privacy and confidentiality concerns and breaches regarding individuals' test results.

Perhaps the most critical question is, what do we do with such children when we identify them?

Given the serious risks and consequences associated with trying to detect at-risk children through their genetics and/or neuroscience, it seems that such efforts would only make sense, if at all, if there were effective strategies to treat such children to prevent their violent futures. Happily, there are some early indications that this may be feasible.

For example, one study found that enriching the environment of at-risk children aged 3-5 years with better nutrition, more physical exercise and intellectual stimulation reduced criminal offenses at age 23 by 34 percent. A growing body of studies is showing that social, behavioral, nutritional or pharmaceutical interventions can reduce the antisocial or violent behavior of at-risk youths.

As potential treatments and other strategies are identified, however, we will need concerted research programs to test those ideas on children identified to be at risk for future violence. Such studies will have to be designed and implemented carefully to avoid or minimize stigmatization and privacy pitfalls.

 Moreover, the children included in these studies shouldn't be identified by mass screenings at school, but by aberrant behavior, followed by genetic or neurologic testing.

Critics of such biology-based preventive approaches emphasize that the environment also plays a critical role in ultimate behavior. But that is the point. By favorably altering the environment of biologically predisposed children, we may be able to avoid the horrific outcomes that would otherwise result.

               

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies and their implications for public policy and for society.

 

1
Text Only
Get the scoop!
  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Rodden, Danny.jpg Sheriff accused of lying about relationship with prostitute

    The sheriff of Clark County, Ind., faces an eight-count federal indictment that accuses him of lying about paying a prostitute for a sex act and giving her a badge so that she could claim a discount rate at a hotel.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Sideshows involving Rice and Dungy stain NFL's image

    Pro football training camps should be all about, well, football. But the talk around the NFL is about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice's two-game suspension, Tony Dungy's indelicate remarks about Michael Sam and Jim Irsay's largesse. What kind of league is Roger Goodell running?

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 30, 2014

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 30, 2014

  • 20140727-AMX-GUNS271.jpg Beretta, other gun makers heading to friendlier states

    In moving south and taking 160 jobs with it, Beretta joins several other prominent gunmakers abandoning liberal states that passed tough gun laws after the Newtown shooting.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 28, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • CATS-DOGS281.jpg Where cats are more popular than dogs in the U.S.-and all over the world

    We all know there are only two types of people in the world: cat people and dog people. But data from market research firm Euromonitor suggest that these differences extend beyond individual preferences and to the realm of geopolitics: it turns out there are cat countries and dog countries, too.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

  • HallofFameBraves.jpg Hall of Fame adds businesslike Braves, Frank Thomas, managers La Russa and Torre

    Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and their manager, Bobby Cox, dominated much of baseball during the 1990s. This weekend they went into the Hall of Fame together.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • wd saturday tobias .jpg Stranger’s generosity stuns Ohio veteran

    Vietnam War veteran David A. Tobias was overwhelmed recently when a fellow customer at an OfficeMax store near Ashtabula, Ohio paid for a computer he was purchasing.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

Do you believe school administrators and college presidents in Oklahoma are paid too much?

Strongly agree.
Somewhat agree.
Somewhat disagree.
Strongly disagree.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Texas Scientists Study Ebola Virus Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow Southern Accent Reduction Class Cancelled in TN Raw: Deadly Landslide Hits Indian Village Obama Chides House GOP for Pursuing Lawsuit New Bill Aims to Curb Sexual Assault on Campus Russia Counts Cost of New US, EU Sanctions 3Doodler Bring 3-D Printing to Your Hand Six PA Cops Indicted for Robbing Drug Dealers Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways Raw: Thousands Flocking to German Crop Circle At Least 20 Chikungunya Cases in New Jersey Raw: Obama Eats Ribs in Kansas City In Virginia, the Rise of a New Space Coast Raw: Otters Enjoy Water Slides at Japan Zoo NCAA Settles Head-injury Suit, Will Change Rules Raw: Amphibious Landing Practice in Hawaii Raw: Weapons Fire Hits UN School in Gaza Raw: Rocket Launches Into Space With Cargo Ship Broken Water Main Floods UCLA
Stocks