Thursday, June 11, 2009

Born to Raise Hell

By Barbara D’Amato


For nearly twenty years researchers have described a link between antisocial behavior and low activity on the MAO-A gene. A defect in this gene produces an excessive breakdown of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a substance that makes humans calm. The defect increases anger and produces an urge to react with aggression to fear or threat. [MAO-A has been called the “warrior gene”].

A Florida State University study on the tendency to join gangs, released this week, goes further. In young men, low activity on the MAO-A allele was associated with a greater tendency to violence, to use weapons, and to join gangs.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which began in 1994 and therefore has been able to follow subjects for many years, surveyed 2,500 young males between 7th and 12th grade. The findings: Compared with males with a high-active gene, males with a MAO-A allele with low activity were twice as likely to join a gang, and more than four times as likely to use a weapon, even compared with other gang members, if those other gang members has a high-active gene.

A British study found that a combination of low-active MAO-A and a history of being abused produced males who committed four times as many robberies, rapes, and assaults.

Males who had the high-active MAO-A gene seemed to survive childhood abuse, having no more violent history than the average male. As Joshua Buckholtz at Vanderbilt University’s Brain Institute puts it, the genes “do an important job in loading the gun. But it’s the environment that pulls the trigger.”

In a way, this is encouraging. A study at the University of Georgia, published this May, found that five years of enrollment in a prevention program reduced binge drinking, drug use, and other antisocial behaviors to levels average in the general population.

These studies, though, give us all another big question for the blame game. Sure, when a young man has engaged in violent behavior repeatedly, he needs to be put where he can’t hurt anybody else. But what about the question of punishment?

Do we punish when there is genetic evidence of diminished restraint coupled with childhood abuse the child certainly never asked for?

21 comments:

abbourgoin said...

Wow great post Barbara. I love reading this post on a daily basis and looking at things from different angles.

I think the main question here isn't weather or not we should or should not be punishing-because we should punish when the law is broken-but what kind of punishment should it be?

I am all for rehabilliation which is something that our judicial system does not allow for enough of. I watch "Lock Up" on a weekly basis and see intelligent young men and women who have made bad decisions sit and rot in a jail cell.

If we could institute more of a rehabilitating environment to the prison system, people could once again learn how to put their vast knowlege to good use.

The unfortunate things with gangs is that a lot of the top members have incredible business sense. With a little rehab, we could have these individuals in a working environment and contributing valuable resources to society.

Thanks Barb!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

For some reason, Barb, as I read this my mind is plotting a Sci Fi thriller with the testing of babies for low-active MAO-A. Sent off to some island where... well something happens.

Maybe someday science will be able to "cure" criminals???

Anonymous said...

Maybe this accounts for some of my problems. An interesting and potentially useful subject. Given the number of people in jail, many with that situation, if they're there five years and could attend a course like the one you described, perhaps recidivism would come down, esp. if it were aimed at the younger people.

Barbara D'Amato said...

abbourgoin and anonymous--thanks for writing. I agree with you, and the rehabilitation we need is early, early, early.

Wil--maybe a book for you to write?

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, I always wonder a bit about the nature/nurture studies. I don't think we ever, as a society, try to understand why some kids in a gang-dominated culture resist gangs. But I also think we look at gang-dominated cultures in isolation.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Chicago had brutal gangs of Irish-Americans. The late Mayor Daley belonged to one in his early years. Those gangs disappeared as families were able to move into positions of power in the more mainstream world. I suppose you could argue that some of Cook County political behavior comes out of those old street gangs.

Recent brain research shows that brain chemistry is altered by exogenous factors--so did the first Mayor Daley have low-active MAO-A that then grew to normal levels when he became politically powerful, or did he learn to channel his anti-social urges in other ways, or--is it all because we're pack animals and like to run with the pack?

After Kristallnacht, Freud wrote about the ways in which very ordinary citizens could hunt with the pack at night and in the daytime return to their ordinary jobs and lives with no feeling of guilt because everyone in their pack had done the same thing. Much to ponder.

Barbara D'Amato said...

It's a difficult question, Sara. But the encouraging thing about this particular study is that really good rehabilitation can modify a potentially antisocial child. Maybe that's what increasing social status did for the Irish children who might have become gang members.

As to Daley the First, did he ever outgrow having a short fuse?

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