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A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret

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.

"I said, 'Jim, why don't you find out about your father's relatives?' " Jenny Fallon recalls. "I think there were some cuckoos back there."

First in a three-part series

Fallon investigated.

"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.

"Here is a brain that's not normal," he says. There are patches of yellow and red. Then he points to another section of the brain, in the front part of the brain, just behind the eyes.

"Look at that -- there's almost nothing here," Fallon says.

This is the orbital cortex, the area that Fallon and other scientists believe is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control.

"People with low activity [in the orbital cortex] are either free-wheeling types or sociopaths," he says.

Fallon's Scans

He's clearly oversimplifying, but Fallon says the orbital cortex puts a brake on another part of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved with aggression and appetites. But in some people, there's an imbalance -- the orbital cortex isn't doing its job -- perhaps because the person had a brain injury or was born that way.

"What's left? What takes over?" he asks. "The area of the brain that drives your id-type behaviors, which is rage, violence, eating, sex, drinking."

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.

But what about people who rape and murder -- should we feel empathy for them? Should they be allowed to argue in court that their brains made them do it? Enter the new world of "neurolaw" -- in which neuroscience is used as evidence in the courtroom.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We begin a series today on the criminal brain, and how breakthroughs in neuroscience are changing the way some think about guilt and innocence. One pioneer is James Fallon. He's a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine. For the past couple of decades, Fallon has studied the brains of murderers.

Recently, Fallon made a startling discovery. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty profiles the scientist with a family secret.

BARBARA HAGERTY: Jim Fallon spends a lot of time inside the heads of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how - say, a killer's brain differs from yours and mine. It's cutting-edge academic research but recently, it became intensely personal when Fallon had a conversation with his then-88-year-old mother, Jenny.

Dr. JAMES FALLON (Neuroscientist, University of California Irvine): It was four years ago, and we were at a family barbecue in the backyard - it was in the summertime. And she said, what are you doing now? Are you still doing those talks?

Ms. JENNY FALLON: And I says, Jim, why don't you find out about your father's relatives? I says, I think there were some cuckoos back there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: So Fallon investigated, and it turns out that one of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, killed his mother in the 1600s. And that line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers.

Dr. FALLON: There's this whole lineage of very violent people, killers, ending with Lizzy Borden.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) Lizzy Borden took an ax, gave her mother 40 whacks.

HAGERTY: Fallon was a little spooked by his ancestry, so he set out to see if anyone in his family had the brain of a serial killer. He knows what to look for, since he's studied the brains of dozens of psychopaths. He calls up an image of a brain on his computer screen. It's lit up with patches of color.

Dr. FALLON: Here is a brain that's not normal. You can see where this is - this yellow here and red here, and look at it. It's almost nothing here.

HAGERTY: He's pointing to the orbital cortex. It's completely dark. That's the part of the brain that's right above the eyes, and this is the area that Fallon and other scientists believe is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and controlling one's impulses.

Dr. FALLON: People with low activity are either freewheeling types or sociopaths.

HAGERTY: Fallon says that's because the orbital cortex puts a brake on another part of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved with aggression and appetites. If there's an imbalance, if the orbital cortex isn't doing its job -maybe because it was damaged or was just born that way...

Dr. FALLON: What's left? What takes over? Well, the area of the brain that drives your id-type behaviors - which is rage, violence, eating, sex, drinking.

HAGERTY: Now, nobody in his family has problems with those behaviors, but he persuaded 10 of his close relatives to submit to a brain scan. Then he examined the images, comparing them with the brains of psychopaths. His wife's scan was normal. His mother, normal. Siblings, normal. Kids, normal.

Dr. FALLON: And I took a look at my own PET scan and saw something a little disturbing that I did not talk about.

HAGERTY: What he didn't want to reveal was that his orbital cortex looks inactive.

Dr. FALLON: If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers.

HAGERTY: Fallon cautions that this is a young field. Scientists are just beginning to understand this area of the brain. 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.

Which brings us to the next part of his family experiment. Along with brain scans, Fallon also tested each family member's DNA for genes that are associated with violence and impulsivity. He looked at 12 genes and zeroed in on something called the MAOA gene. It's also known as the warrior gene because it regulates serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin affects your mood, 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.

Dr. FALLON: So this is the MAO gene. And we can see here my daughter, son, daughter, daughter, brother, brother, wife, brother.

HAGERTY: Everyone in his family has the low-aggression variant, except...

Dr. FALLON: I'm like 100 percent here. I have the pattern, a risky pattern. In a sense, I'm a born killer.

HAGERTY: Fallon laughs as he says this. 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...

Dr. FALLON: When I put the two and two together, it was, frankly, a little disturbing. You know, 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 psychopaths, sociopaths that I've seen before.

Ms. DIANE FALLON: I wasn't too concerned. I really wasn't. I mean, I've known him since I was 12.

HAGERTY: That's Jim Fallon's wife, Diane. She probably doesn't 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: childhood abuse.

Ms. D. FALLON: And fortunately, he wasn't abused as a young person, so I've lived to be, you know, a ripe old age so far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: Jim Fallon says he had a great childhood. And, he says, this journey through his brain has changed the way he thinks about nature and nurture. He used to believe that genes and brain function determine everything about us. But now, he says, he thinks his childhood may have made all the difference.

Dr. FALLON: We'll never know. But had I been abused, I think we wouldn't be sitting here today.

HAGERTY: As to the psychopaths he studies, he feels some compassion for these people who got, as he put it, a bad roll of the dice.

Dr. FALLON: 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.

HAGERTY: But what about people who rape and murder? Should we feel empathy for them? Should they be allowed to argue in court that their brains made them do it? Tomorrow, we look at the brain of a psychopath and how scientific discoveries are changing our notions of morality, crime and punishment.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Want to compare the brain images of Jim Fallon and his son? Go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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