There have been a number of misleading reports, troubling anomalies, and outright hoaxes following the tragedy in Newtown, CT. To some extent this is to be expected given the suddenness of the event and the scale and nature of the tragedy although the volume of faulty information has still been perplexing. But beyond the confusion and misinformation regarding basic facts of the event there has also been a peculiar focus on what could only be described as junk-analysis on the part of the mainstream media when it comes to the questions over why this took place and how we can prevent further tragedies of this nature. The sudden media fixation the shooter’s alleged diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome has been one of the most prominent examples of this curious behavior. Humanity has been living with people with Asperger’s Syndrome virtually forever and there is no meaningful evidence that such individuals have a tendency towards mass killings. And considering that a mass shooting attempt at a mall just days earlier was carried out by an individual that appeared to be quite social and outgoing, the sudden focus on the shooter’s apparent social awkwardness has been a troubling development. Not unprecedented but still troubling given the long-term damage such stereotyping could have on a society.
With this in mind, there is a second deeply disturbing response to this tragedy that has to be addressed: the attempts to find a “biological” explanation for the attack. If there was a single phrase that could summarize the absurdities in the plans to find this biological explanation, the phase ‘OMFG’ might suffice:
DNA of Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza to Be Studied by Geneticists
ABC World News
By SHUSHANNAH WALSHE (@shushwalshe)
Dece. 27, 2012
Geneticists have been asked to study the DNA of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut man whose shooting rampage killed 27 people, including an entire first grade class.
The study, which experts believe may be the first of its kind, is expected to be looking for abnormalities or mutations in Lanza’s DNA.
Connecticut Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver has reached out to University of Connecticut’s geneticists to conduct the study.
University of Connecticut spokesperson Tom Green says Carver “has asked for help from our department of genetics” and they are “willing to give any assistance they can.”
Green said he could not provide details on the project, but said it has not begun and they are “standing by waiting to assist in any way we can.”
Lanza, 20, carried out the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., just days before Christmas. His motives for the slaughter remain a mystery.
Geneticists not directly involved in the study said they are likely looking at Lanza’s DNA to detect a mutation or abnormality that could increase the risk of aggressive or violent behavior. They could analyze Lanza’s entire genome in great detail and try to find unexpected mutations.
This seems to be the first time a study of this nature has been conducted, but it raises concerns in some geneticists and others in the field that there could be a stigma attached to people with these genetic characteristics if they are able to be narrowed down.
Just a note: not only does this study appear to be the first of its kind in the field of genetics, it’s also apparently quite groundbreaking in the field of statistics. After all, everyone has MILLIONS of individual base-pair mutations in their DNA that deviates from the ‘norm’. So apparently these crack scientists are possibly going to look through the shooter’s entire genome and in order to identify the ‘evil’ mutation. And, of course, being responsible scientists they would want to employ robust statistical analysis to identify these ‘evil’ mutations, you know, like a standard case/control sort of study. The control group would be easy to get. You just need to get some DNA from non-evil people that don’t go around killing people. You know, non-evil people like this guy. And for the ‘case’ cohort they’ll have....hmmmm....A SINGLE PERSON. Ok, maybe they’ll throw in some relatives and just assume they’re evil too because, you know, genetics is all about heredity, right? Yes, it’s a brave new world of statistical analysis! How exciting!
Arthur Beaudet, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said the University of Connecticut geneticists are most likely trying to “detect clear abnormalities of what we would call a mutation in a gene…or gene abnormalities and there are some abnormalities that are related to aggressive behavior.”
“They might look for mutations that might be associated with mental illnesses and ones that might also increase the risk for violence,” said Beaudet, who is also the chairman of Baylor College of Medicine’s department of molecular and human genetics.
Beaudet believes geneticists should be doing this type of research because there are “some mutations that are known to be associated with at least aggressive behavior if not violent behavior.”
“I don’t think any one of these mutations would explain all of (the mass shooters), but some of them would have mutations that might be causing both schizophrenia and related schizophrenia violent behavior,” Beaudet said. “I think we could learn more about it and we should learn more about it.”
Beaudet noted that studying the genes of murderers is controversial because there is a risk that those with similar genetic characteristics could possibly be discriminated against or stigmatized, but he still thinks the research would be helpful even if only a “fraction” may have the abnormality or mutation.
“Not all of these people will have identifiable genetic abnormalities,” Beaudet said, adding that even if a genetic abnormality is found it may not be related to a “specific risk.”
“By studying genetic abnormalities we can learn more about conditions better and who is at risk and what might be dramatic treatments,” Beaudet said, adding if the gene abnormality is defined the “treatment to stop” other mass shootings or “decrease the risk is much approved.“
Ok, so we now have a geneticist that’s endorsing the approach of going “mutation fishing” in the DNA of murderers that’s associated with aggressiveness and violence and if we find a genetic variant that a “fraction” of murderers have it’s “much approved” to apply “treatment to stop” other people with the same genetic variants. Also, let’s recall that the shooter had no recorded history of violence so we’ll just have to “treat” EVERYONE with these newly discovered genetic variants regardless of their history of violence. A brave new world indeed!
Others in the field aren’t so sure.
Dr. Harold Bursztajn, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is a leader in his field on this issue writing extensively on genetic discrimination. He questions what the University of Connecticut researchers could “even be looking for at this point.”
“Given how wide the net would have to be cast and given the problem of false positives in testing it is much more likely we would go ahead and find some misleading genetic markers, which would later be proven false while unnecessarily stigmatizing a very large group of people,” Bursztajn said.
Bursztajn also cautions there are other risks to this kind of study: that other warning signs could be ignored.
“It’s too risky from the stand point of unduly stigmatizing people, but also from distracting us from real red flags to prevent violence from occurring,” Bursztajn said. “The last thing we need when people are in the midst of grief is offering people quick fixes which may help our anxiety, but can be counterproductive to our long term safety and ethics.”
Bursztajn is also the president of the American Unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Bioethics Chair and in that role he teaches health care professionals about responsible genetic education including the history of eugenics in this country in the 1920s and Nazi Germany. He cautions against the slippery slope that the kind of research that could be involved in the University of Connecticut’s study could lead to.
Dr. Heidi Tissenbaum, a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts medical school, agrees the research is risky saying an accurate study just cannot be completed on one person.
“The problem is there might be a genetic component, but we don’t have enough of a sample size,” Tissenbaum said. “I think it’s much more than a simple genetic answer, but an interplay between genetics and environment.”
“One sample, what’s that going to tell you,” Tissenbaum said, referring to Lanza’s DNA. “You never do an experiment with one, you can’t conclude anything… The question is what are they comparing his DNA against? Are they going to control to random people? Matching for age or society? We just don’t have enough (of a sample).”
Well, it looks like other experts aren’t as optimistic about the prospects of conducting a genetics association study on a one person. It looks like our brave new world of statistical analysis will have to wait.
This story is reminiscent of a series of interesting — but sometimes troubling — interviews that were shown last week on Erin Burnett’s “Out Front” CNN show. There are a number of clips available that are worth viewing to get a sense of the how the natural desire to “find a solution” to mass killings is playing itself out in the national discourse:
1. First, watch this Dec 18th clip from her show where she interviews “Dr. Oz” about the minds of mass killers. Dr Oz makes the case that “antisocial” people have different brains than normal people and we need to have “a Homeland Security approach” to mental health. He does, fortunately, make the point that kids with Asperger’s Syndrome do, indeed, exhibit compassion, so at least one group that would probably fall into the “antisocial” category in many people’s minds was given the “non-psycho” pass by this Doctor. But let’s just take a step back and consider what a “Homeland Security” approach to “antisocial” people might entail.
2. On the Wedsnesday (Dec 19th) show Ms. Burnett (now Mrs. Burnett, BTW) had a segment where she raised the question “are autistic people REALLY not a threat? after all, part of the description of this condition is a lack of empathy...” (this isn’t in the clip but I saw it live) and then she she interviewed an autism advocate and leads in with “I asked him how he’s so sure that autism wasn’t a part of why this tragedy happened”. The interview worth watching as a great example of, how shall we puts this, a lack of empathy.
3. Next, watch this clip from later in that same Dec. 19th show where Ms. Burnett interview Dr. Drew about how to identify a psychopath and whether or not people can be born psychopaths. It’s an interesting segment that includes a fascinating story about Dr. Jim Fallon, a scientist that specializes in studying the minds of psychopaths. Part of that research involves using brain scans (fMRI) that has shown distinct patterns of brain functioning that is found in psychopathic individuals. As Dr. Drew also points out, the scientist that did the brain scanning research also has the brain matching the psychopath profile. Fascinating, no?
4. Now watch this clip from the Dec. 21st show where Ms. Burnett interview Dr. Jim Fallon about his research and the discovery that he also has a brain that exhibits similar fMRI patterns to that of a psychopath. Part of what makes this interview so fascinating is that we see an individual with a supposed “psychopath” brain, Dr. Fallon, basically making a personal sacrifice by telling the world that he has the traits of the psychopath even though he clearly isn’t a psychopath in order to make the important point that people may share these same traits as a psychopath aren’t necessarily psychopaths. Perhaps there’s a lesson or two here for any psychopaths/sociopaths in Washington DC that may be tempted to implement brain scanning technology in a “Homeland Security” approach to mental illness? First, our brave policy makers should realize that the the implementation of such scanning technology would be fraught with great ethical peril, although that may not particularly care if they were psychopaths/sociopaths. But, they should also realize that when they, themselves, get revealed as having psychopathic brains (because we’re all going to want to brain scan on Congress first) these hidden psychos in Congress could at least say “aha, but as Dr. Fallon has shown, having a ‘psychopath brain’ doesn’t mean I’m a psychopath!”. Isn’t science fun?
Finally, let’s take a look at another article about Dr. Fallon’s findings. It contains a important lesson that should not only be internalized by all policy makers (psycho or not) but it also needs to be internalized by the rest of us. It a reminder that psychopaths are a product of nature (genes) AND nurture:
National Public Radio
A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
June 29, 2010 12:00 AM
The criminal brain has always held a fascination for James Fallon. For nearly 20 years, the neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine has studied the brains of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how a killer’s brain differs from yours and mine.
About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a family barbecue.
“There’s a whole lineage of very violent people — killers,” he says.
One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. “Cousin Lizzy,” as Fallon wryly calls her, was accused (and controversially acquitted) of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.
A little spooked by his ancestry, Fallon set out to see whether anyone in his family possesses the brain of a serial killer. Because he has studied the brains of dozens of psychopaths, he knew precisely what to look for. To demonstrate, he opened his laptop and called up an image of a brain on his computer screen.
Fallon says nobody in his family has real problems with those behaviors. But he wanted to be sure. Conveniently, he had everything he needed: Previously, he had persuaded 10 of his close relatives to submit to a PET brain scan and give a blood sample as part of a project to see whether his family had a risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
After learning his violent family history, he examined the images and compared them with the brains of psychopaths. His wife’s scan was normal. His mother: normal. His siblings: normal. His children: normal.
“And I took a look at my own PET scan and saw something disturbing that I did not talk about,” he says.
What he didn’t want to reveal was that his orbital cortex looks inactive.
“If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers.”
Fallon cautions that this is a young field. Scientists are just beginning to study this area of the brain — much less the brains of criminals. Still, he says the evidence is accumulating that some people’s brains predispose them toward violence and that psychopathic tendencies may be passed down from one generation to another.
The Three Ingredients
And that brings us to the next part of Jim Fallon’s family experiment. Along with brain scans, Fallon also tested each family member’s DNA for genes that are associated with violence. He looked at 12 genes related to aggression and violence and zeroed in on the MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A). This gene, which has been the target of considerable research, is also known as the “warrior gene” because it regulates serotonin in the brain. Serotonin affects your mood — think Prozac — and many scientists believe that if you have a certain version of the warrior gene, your brain won’t respond to the calming effects of serotonin.
Fallon calls up another slide on his computer. It has a list of family members’ names, and next to them, the results of the genotyping. Everyone in his family has the low-aggression variant of the MAO-A gene, except for one person.
“You see that? I’m 100 percent. I have the pattern, the risky pattern,” he says, then pauses. “In a sense, I’m a born killer.”
Fallon’s being tongue-in-cheek — sort of. He doesn’t believe his fate or anyone else’s is entirely determined by genes. They merely tip you in one direction or another.
And yet: “When I put the two together, it was frankly a little disturbing,” Fallon says with a laugh. “You start to look at yourself and you say, ‘I may be a sociopath.’ I don’t think I am, but this looks exactly like [the brains of] the psychopaths, the sociopaths, that I’ve seen before.”
I asked his wife, Diane, what she thought of the result.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” she says, laughing. “I mean, I’ve known him since I was 12.”
Diane probably does not need to worry, according to scientists who study this area. They believe that brain patterns and genetic makeup are not enough to make anyone a psychopath. You need a third ingredient: abuse or violence in one’s childhood.
“And fortunately, he wasn’t abused as a young person,” Diane says, “so I’ve lived to be a ripe old age so far.”
The New World of ‘Neurolaw’
Jim Fallon says he had a terrific childhood; he was doted on by his parents and had loving relationships with his brothers and sisters and entire extended family. Significantly, he says this journey through his brain has changed the way he thinks about nature and nurture. He once believed that genes and brain function could determine everything about us. But now he thinks his childhood may have made all the difference.
“We’ll never know, but the way these patterns are looking in general population, had I been abused, we might not be sitting here today,” he says.
As for the psychopaths he studies, Fallon feels some compassion for these people who, he says, got “a bad roll of the dice.”
“It’s an unlucky day when all of these three things come together in a bad way, and I think one has to empathize with what happened to them,” he says.
Greater societal empathy for psychopaths and other violent criminals may not be the first response that people have when trying to come to grips with the phenomena of mass murder, but if we really want to address these issues and find a solution that doesn’t resemble some sort of Minority Report–meets–Gattaca dystopia, perhaps greater empathy for the many people exhibiting psychopathic/sociopathic personality traits can lead us towards a reasonable solution? For instance, it’s certainly true that the United States has an abundance of highly powerful weaponry available and some sort of balance in how we regulate that weaponry is a clear part of any long-term solution. But we might also want to remind ourselves that the United States has the highest rates of childhood poverty in the developed world. We might also want to remind ourselves that child abuse is also massive problem this society and it can impact children across the socioeconomic spectrum. And what about the ongoing disgrace of major institutions that appear to have protected and covered up these crimes? And, of course, what about all the other horrific systemic abuses that take place to children and adults that rarely, if ever, get addressed. Obviously, the vast vast majority of victims of abuse don’t turn out to be psychopaths — otherwise we would have MUCH BIGGER problems in this society. But we have to keep in mind that there is going to be a small subset of abuse victims that are especially vulnerable to the stresses and horrors of child abuse and those vulnerable children may be more prone towards growing up into psychopathic adults.
Are we going to include these topics in our national dialogue over ‘mental health’ in the United States? And does society even have the capacity for empathy for those that commit horrible crimes? How about empathizing with someone like Dr. Fallon? We will be missing a huge opportunity if we don’t recognize that the world we are collectively creating can make a BIG difference in whether or not a kid with Dr. Fallon’s genetic predisposition turns out to be a cool doctor that makes a personal sacrifice for others or a violent psychopath. Proposed Mass school screenings for mental illness in children will no doubt do some good for some kids at risk and in need of help but it’s also guaranteed to result in a number of ‘false positive’ diagnoses that could be profoundly detrimental to a child’s psychological development (just imagine getting the “we think you may be a psycho” talk from the counselor and how having that on your permanent record would impact you). So perhaps we should also consider approaches that don’t have nearly as many downsides like addressing growing poverty and stunning rates of child abuse.
How many of today’s psychopaths and sociopaths could have ended up like Dr. Fallon but instead are either walking the streets or rotting in jail due, in part, to life experiences completely outside of their control? Could Dr. Fallon even have become a doctor or even gone to college if he was found to have the ‘evil gene’? Kids don’t ask for their genes...they just get them. And no one asks for abuse, especially child abuse. And most abusers were, themselves, victims of abuse or awful circumstance. How do we handle and empathize with abused abusers? Awful questions regarding the culpability of those caught in horrific criminal act have always been with us. But the development of new ‘predictive’ technologies like genetic screening and fMRI brain scanning made it a question of “when” not “if” societies were going to have to face a choice of really going to go down the Minority Report–meets–Gattaca approach to crime prevention. The dangers that arise from the misuse or abuse of these technologies are only going grow as the power of these technologies also grow in both scope and ease of administration. Like many of the technological revolutions on the horizon, brain scanning and genetic analysis technologies could and should be incredible tools that could help future individuals learn more about themselves, cure diseases, and increase our overall level of self awareness and potential. Science can be fun like that. But these same technologies could also become traps, where superficial metrics like genes and brain scans are used to single out and destroy those that deviate from a prescribed ‘norm’ or ‘raise red flags’, regardless of how imprecise those ‘red flags’ may be.
Science, technology, and public policy is often a scary mix. Science involving predictive surveillance technologies that delve into the most intimate aspects of ourselves — our bodies and minds — has immense potential for harm if misused. When coupled with public policy related to emotionally charged topics like mass killers — especially mass child killers — predictive surveillance technologies are quite possibly one of the most volatile mixes humanity has ever faced. These kinds of topics aren’t new. We know where this can go. Societies are going to have the ability to poke and prod inside the bodies and minds of individuals in ways few imagined as the future unfolds. If the national debate that followed this tragedy in Newtown is any indication of what to expect as these predictive surveillance technologies become available, future societies may not be the kinds of places where anyone would want to raise a child.