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Young killers’ brains are different, study shows

Blue depicts areas of the brain with less gray matter in youths who committed homicide relative to their peers who didn't. The areas include the medial and lateral temporal lobes. (Courtesy of the Mind Research Network)

Blue depicts areas of the brain with less gray matter in youths who committed homicide relative to their peers who didn’t. The areas include the medial and lateral temporal lobes. (Courtesy of the Mind Research Network)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Young killers have brains that differ considerably from those of male adolescents who have committed other types of serious crimes, according to a new study by an Albuquerque-based nonprofit organization.

Using computers to mine data for significant differences, researchers from the Mind Research Network, on the north campus of the University of New Mexico, looked at MRI brain scans of male adolescent offenders. They were able to determine with an 81 percent degree of accuracy which brains belonged to those who had committed homicide, according to Kent Kiehl, the study’s lead author.

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The study is the first serious neuroscientific examination of brain differences in teens who commit homicide, Kiehl said.

It was inspired by conversations with the Avielle Foundation, which was created following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012.

According to the study, structural differences in those who had killed included reduced gray matter in regions deep in the brain involved in processing emotions and regulating impulses. They are among the last areas of the brain to develop, and the findings suggest delayed development in teens who commit homicide, Kiehl said.

The abnormalities in the brains of the killers apparently preceded their crimes and are probably not genetic.

The findings of “Abnormal Brain Structure in Youth Who Commit Homicide” are enumerated in the current issue of “Neuroimage: Clinical,” an online journal of brain function. Kiehl, the author of the well-received book, “Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience,” is also a professor of psychology, neuroscience and law at UNM and the Mind Research Network’s executive science officer.

KIEHL: Says it's first study of its kind

KIEHL: Says it’s first study of its kind

He said he hopes that science will eventually be able to intercede in the lives of children who act out and reduce or even prevent the likelihood of violent crimes.

In the study, he and other MRN researchers looked at the brains of 20 males, 12 to 18 years old, who were incarcerated in New Mexico for homicide. They compared those scans to those of another 135 young offenders who had not committed homicide but were incarcerated in the same maximum-security facility.

The study included three control groups to help isolate and verify the forensic findings:

  • The entire population of the maximum-security facility.
  • A group of 20 boys from similar socio-economic and educational backgrounds.
  • Normal kids who are not imprisoned.

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The study was supported by funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.

“As policy makers grapple with the high societal, human and budgetary costs of violent crime and incarceration among young people, it is within the power of neuroscience to help understand the brain abnormalities involved,” Kiehl said. “Then 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.”

He points with great hope to a Wisconsin program in which intensive psychotherapy resulted in a 50 percent reduction in violent crimes, including homicide, among the teenagers involved.

The program at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, a maximum-security treatment center for high-risk youths in Madison, Wis., was instituted by the state’s legislature several years ago to reduce recidivism. Initially, 30 or so boys were designated for about a year of positive reinforcement, and since then about 200 have completed the program. It includes specially designed exercises and games, as well as designated ways to teach the boys to consider the consequences of their actions.

“Ask almost any parent, and they’ll tell you – they know that punishment rarely works,” Kiehl said.

After a year of active participation in the program, the boys were reincarcerated to complete their sentences and ultimately released as scheduled. Afterward, they were tracked for four years. That’s when it was discovered that their rate of recidivism was significantly lower than that among others.

Of the first 200 who were tracked, not a single one resorted to homicide again. A control group of another 200 high-risk boys had 16 killings.

“That’s how many lives were saved,” Kiehl said. “I consider this to be the best program in the entire world in reducing recidivism.”

Georgia is seeking to duplicate the Wisconsin example. According to Kiehl, for every $10,000 a state invests in the program, it saves $70,000 over four years.

“I think we could do it here,” he said.

Kiehl, originally from Tacoma, Wash., grew up a block or two from serial killer Ted Bundy, who kidnapped, raped and murdered women and girls. He never met Bundy, but his father was a local newspaperman who would “talk about him all the time.” That motivated the younger Kiehl to become a neuroscientist, “to try to help kids.”

“That is the real goal of our work,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any more important thing I can do with my career.”

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