Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Criminal Brain

By Tim Hannan

Antisocial behaviour after brain injury is associated with lesions to a single neural network.

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While it is well-known that previously law-abiding people sometimes exhibit criminal behaviour after suffering a brain injury, the areas of the brain most associated with such behaviour have not been clearly identified. Prior studies of brain-injured patients who have committed crimes have reported lesions in diverse brain regions, suggesting that no single area of the brain is critical to the development of antisocial or violent behaviour. Now, the first systematic review of a series of cases has found that all have suffered damage to a specific network of brain neurons, suggesting that such newly acquired criminal behaviour may be explained by a single neural network.

While criminal behaviour has many causes, prior neuropsychological research has shown that some people developed criminal behaviour after sustaining brain damage through a head injury, stroke, tumour or dementia. A classic case often referenced is Charles Whitman, a former US marine who murdered his wife, mother and 14 other people after a tumour developed in his right temporal lobe. Prior to these events, he had not displayed any general cognitive difficulties, although changes in his mood, personality and moral judgement were evident. In a letter written on the day before the killings, he commented: “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy… I love her dearly, and she has...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.