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Homicide and the Adolescent Brain

What would you say if I told you that by conducting an MRI, a doctor would be able to know whether or not someone was at a higher risk of committing murder?
Researchers at The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico conducted a study using high-resolution structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and voxel-based morphometry, to scan the brains of 20 male youth who have committed homicide and 135 youth delinquents who had not committed homicide. All subjects were between the ages of 12-18, and were incarnated in a maximum-security facility. Researchers also analyzed the brains of two control groups that did not have any criminal backgrounds.

The team found that the 20 youth who had committed homicide had lower brain volume and reduced volumes of gray matter in the medial and lateral temporal lobes, including the hippocampus and posterior insula. The technology was able to identify the homicide offenders with an amazing 81% accuracy. What I found particularly interesting was that both emotion and impulsive behaviors are controlled in the temporal lobes.

Dr. Kent Kiehl, who led the research, describes the goal of his findings, “We can create medicine and behavioral therapies to reduce the likelihood of these violent crimes, or in a perfect world, prevent these crimes from happening at all. It is my hope that these findings will lead to the ability to better understand at-risk kids before they commit homicide and put them on a different and productive path.”

In the aftermath of the Isle Vista, CA tragedy in May, this research raises an interesting concept. Would scanning individuals with mental illnesses who are showing unusual signs of aggression and violence provide the same outcomes? Would an MRI be able to predict if someone has an increased probability of committing violence towards themselves or others? If so, we could potentially prevent future suicides and violent crimes from happening by introducing the necessary behavioral therapies and medication.

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