The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. The research uncovers the role of the brain's reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals.
"This study underscores the importance of neurological research as it relates to behavior," Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said. "The findings may help us find new ways to intervene before a personality trait becomes antisocial behavior."
The results were published March 14, 2010, in Nature Neuroscience.
"Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences," Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. "We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse."
If drugs can be found that suppress the dopamine reward system in the brains of psychopaths should they be required to take the drugs?
If a person can get brain scanned to detect psychopathy should a sentencing judge impose a harsher sentence on the theory that psychopaths can not be rehabilitated?
If a child can be identified to be both a psychopath and violent should the child be separated from society or medicated starting at a young age to alter their brain development to make them more ethical?
While most rhetoric about making the world a better place speaks in terms of less hunger, less disease, less war, less injustice, and less environmental damage a group of scientists see the boosting of cognitive abilities as a path toward a better world.
A commentary appearing today online in the journal Nature advocates for broad access to brain-boosting drugs. According to the piece, written by a group of ethicists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, "cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world." While opponents have argued that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is unfair and could undermine the value of hard work, the authors say that these drugs fall into the same category as more common efforts to increase brain function, such as drinking a cup of coffee, or getting a good night's sleep, and thus should be regulated accordingly.
I like the "unlike enhancement for sports competitions". Why should we see enhancements for sports competitions as unethical? Biotechnology used to enhance sports performance prevents us from discovering each person's natural genetic potential. But why do so many object to this? Could it be a deep innate desire to evaluate the reproductive potential of others is threatened if others can run faster, throw farther, or dodge more adeptly with the help of biotech? If people can use gene therapy to athletically outperform their natural potential then we can't see what sorts of babies they'd make naturally.
But what about the brain? Way more important obviously. We've got machines that'll do much of the brawn work and brawn worker status is way down and still declining - with rare exceptions in sports. But we still need lots of people with lots of brain power, the more the merrier. So the advantages of cognitive enhancement are not just for the people who get the enhancements. A cognitively enhanced scientist discovers more. A brain boosted inventor comes up with more inventions. A doctor with a better memory and faster reasoning figures out diagnostic puzzles sooner and more accurately.
Of course, there are problematic facets to brain tinkering. Biotech will come along that'll allow people to suppress their consciences or make them get more pleasure out of making others suffer. Our emotions and desires will become more manipulable with biotechnology. As that happens humanity runs the chance of developing deeper cognitive incompatibilities that make the maintenance of peace and civilization problematic.
Philadelphia, PA, September 20, 2007 – Pedophilia, the sexual attraction of adults to children, is a significant public health concern and it does not respond well to treatment. Additionally, the brain mechanisms underlying pedophilia are not well understood. A new study being published in the September 15th issue of Biological Psychiatry is the first of its kind to use functional brain imaging to describe neural circuits contributing to pedophilia.
I've long expected scientists will find that peds are wired up differently than the rest of us. Since I suspect the cause of their behavior comes from how their brains are wired I do not see that it makes sense to let them back out into society once they've been identified and served jail sentences. Okay, so what I do propose to do with them instead? Put them in isolated communities where they can't possibly get near children but where they are otherwise able to move about and live freely. Set aside a pedophile island where they would get relocated. Put buildings, infrastructure, other elements need to create a functional economy on that island.
I think the "isle of the damned" approach makes a lot of sense for certain types of crimes where people have unacceptable and unrepairable obsessions and criminal tendencies. If they are threats to only a portion of humanity (e.g. children, women) then put them somewhere that has none of their preferred targets.
Will we some day use brain scans to identify who should get sent to the "isle of the damned"?
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Walter and colleagues report that pedophilic patients showed reduced activation of the hypothalamus, a brain region involved in regulating physiologic arousal and hormone release, as compared to healthy individuals when they were viewing sexually arousing pictures of adults. Deficits of activation in the frontal cortex were associated with the extent of pedophilic behavior. In other words, when shown erotic pictures of adults, the brains of the pedophilic patients had reduced reactions in the pleasure center of the brain, indicating an altered sexual interest.
Is it possible to develop a brain scanning technology that will identify pedophiles without any false positives?
The scientists obviously want “the ability to intervene rationally in this disorder".
John H. Krystal, M.D., Editor of Biological Psychiatry and affiliated with both Yale University School of Medicine and the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, comments that, “the ability to intervene rationally in this disorder is limited by shortcomings in our understanding of its neurobiology. The findings provide clues to the complexity of this disorder, [and] this deficit may predispose individuals who are vulnerable to pedophilia to seek other forms of stimulation.” It is important to acknowledge and consider however, that it is currently unknown “whether this pattern of brain activation is a risk factor for the development of pedophilia or a consequence of their pedophilic sexual experiences,” according to Dr. Krystal, and future research will be needed.
Therapy in this case would result in reordering of neurons in the brain. These researchers sound like their ultimate goal is to reshape human desires that are considered morally unacceptable.
One of the study’s authors, Georg Northoff, M.D., Ph.D., adds, "[These findings] may open the door for better understanding the neurobiology of this disorder which is of forensic, criminal and public concern. Our results may thus be seen as the first step towards establishing a neurobiology of pedophilia which ultimately may contribute to the development of new and effective means of therapies for this debilitating disorder.”
Therapies for a brain disorder that causes undesired behavior? Any such therapy would involve reshaping the brain to change emotional reactions and desires. Is this acceptable to do to criminals without their consent?