Neuroscientist James Fallon’s Work & Life Shed Light on How Psychopathic Killers are Made…and Perhaps Prevented

Posted by admin on March 5, 2013

One of the most challenging and important questions in ponerology is whether conditions associated with reduced empathy and conscience, and thus with increased likelihood of harmful malicious and neglectful activity, are caused by nature (genes, biology, etc.) or nurture (environment, upbringing, etc.)

Most who work in the fields that study aspects of this question take the view that the answer involves some combination of the two.

But this still leaves us with another question. In what proportion do each of these factors contribute in which people?

One remarkable case offers some fascinating insight on the subject.

Dr. James Fallon

James Fallon, Ph.D. is a highly decorated neuroscientist and Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Neurobiology at University of California, Irvine. Dr. Fallon has several areas of expertise. One is adult stem cells. Another is psychiatry. Specifically, he is interested in the relationships between brain imaging (he has served as Director of UC Irvine’s Human Brain Imaging Center), genetics and various psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression and addictions.

An Extraordinary Experiment

Aware of his specialties, for many years, Fallon’s colleagues have sent him brain images they wished to have him analyze.

At one point this interchange took the form of an experiment.

Colleagues sent him 70 MRI scans of brains belonging to people ranging from healthy to mentally ill. Included in the batch were scans of brains belonging to killers, including some notorious ones. But Fallon had no idea which scanned brain belonged to whom.

Nonetheless, he was able to identify differences in five of the scans so dramatic that he could recognize them as the markers of psychopathy. And it turned out that he was correct. The five scans on which he zeroed in actually were those from the brains of psychopathic serial killers.

Signs of the Psychopath’s Brain

How could Fallon distinguish the serial killers’ brain scans from the others? He says that all five had some tell-tale signs:

This makes sense. These areas are considered part of the limbic system, the brain complex primarily responsible for our emotional lives. When these areas are underactive or inactive, a person might feel driven – like many killers – to compensate by repeatedly pursuing extreme activities simply to feel satisfied and alive.

Violence-Related Genes

In addition to his study of killers’ brains, Fallon has also studied the genetics of aggression and violence.

Psychological traits are affected by multiple genes. And Fallon says that perhaps a dozen have been identified as high-risk, violence-related genes. These include genes affecting dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmission and androgen (testosterone) receptors.

The most well-known of these violence-related genes is a particular version of the Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA) gene. Because it was the first such gene discovered, it was labeled, and has become popularly known as, “the Warrior Gene,” although Fallon stresses that this nickname can be misleading since all of the various genes associated with violence and aggression could be considered, in a sense, warrior genes.

Most humans have an MAOA gene and it helps regulate serotonin, a neurotransmitter that Fallon says helps relax and calm us. But those with the “Warrior Gene” form of it receive too much serotonin during development in utero, which desensitizes the brain to its effects. That means that later in life, when serotonin would otherwise inhibit behavior, it is unable to do so, resulting in impulsivity and violence.

The MAOA gene is on the X chromosome. This has important implications for how its effects express themselves in males vs. females. Girls get an X chromosome from both their mother and father, so even if one parent passes along the “Warrior Gene” variant, they are likely to get a normally functional MAOA variant from the other parent that offsets its potentially dangerous consequences. But boys get only one X chromosome – the one passed down from their mother. If that X chromosome has the “Warrior” version of the MAOA gene, that will be the only version of it that the boy receives.

This means that violence related to the MAOA “Warrior Gene” is usually passed genetically from mother to son. Fallon believes it also explains why boys and men are much more likely to be very aggressive or psychopathic killers.

Moreover, Fallon says that the reduced empathy seen in psychopathy may be associated with the influence of low acting genes related to the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.

Can Biology Alone Create a Psychopath?

So, putting this together, Fallon recognized patterns in both the brains and genetics of psychopathic killers.

  1. Loss of function in the orbital cortex, anterior temporal lobes and the strip of limbic cortices connecting the two
  2. Having one or more of several high-risk, violence-related genes (like the so-called “Warrior Gene”)

But a crucial question remained. Are these biological markers alone enough to create a psychopath?

Fallon suspected not. But little did he know that he would receive some validation for this suspicion from so close to home.

A Shocking Fallon Family Pattern is Revealed

Based on his work, Fallon was giving many presentations about psychopathic killers. His mother said that, since he was doing this, he should probably know about the release of a new book called Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.

The Cornells, you see, were direct ancestors of Fallon’s father. One of them, for instance, was Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University. But Killed Strangely is about another, more sinister Cornell: Thomas Cornell, who killed his mother, Rebecca, and was hanged for it in 1673, the first case of matricide, Fallon says, recorded in the new American colonies.

Investigating further, Fallon discovered that the rabbit hole went even deeper. There were actually seven murders committed by those within his father’s family line. This line also included Lizzie Borden, his cousin, who was controversially acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892.

Testing Enlightens the Fallons

After learning of his family’s bloody history, James Fallon decided to have brain imaging – PET scans and EEG’s – as well as genetic analyses carried out on himself and nine family members, including his parents, wife and children, to see if any had the markings of killers.

The results:

His family’s reaction to these results is quite interesting:

His son said that he always knew there was something “off” about his father and that, at times, he had feared him because he is a “hothead” with all the traits you’d expect in a serial killer. He said this makes more sense now that he knows that his father has the brain and genetics of a psychopath.

Fallon’s wife said the results were surprising, yet not surprising because he is, in a way, two people, with a funny, gregarious side mixed with a standoffish side.

James Fallon himself does admit to some macabre interests, a predilection for risk-taking and a superficial charm, which you might see in psychopaths and murderers. And he also admits he may sometimes be drawn to behavior that he knows is wrong but “still doesn’t care.”

The Third Ingredient

But, however imperfect, James Fallon is not violent or a killer. And this has enormous implications.

How is it that, despite having so many biological markers for violence, Fallon ended up a scholar rather than an aggressor or even a murderer?

Fallon has come to believe that, in addition to particular brain and genetic patterns, there is a third ingredient involved in the development of a violent psychopath. The environment, he explains, can help determine whether violence-related genes and certain brain processes, such as those involving mirror neurons, are triggered towards aggression. Specifically, he believes that abuse – especially severe early childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse – is instrumental in this process. And he also believes that the precise timing of when various factors come into play is critically important in determining whether one becomes a psychopath and, if so, exactly what type of psychopathological behavior is exhibited.

As for why he himself is not a violent man, Dr. Fallon credits his upbringing in a highly nurturing environment, in which he was not only not abused, but was showered with wonderfully loving family support.

Some of Dr. James Fallon’s Appearances

Fallon has spoken on these topics in a number of forums, including:

Dr. Fallon also appeared on a November 18, 2009 episode of Criminal Minds, the CBS drama about FBI profilers. In the episode, which was based on his TED talk, he played himself giving a lecture about his theory of transgenerational violence in areas of conflict, which was mentioned earlier.

What Fallon May Tell Us About a Possible Future with Less Psychopaths and Killers

What are the implications of Fallon’s research and his story for society at large?

Well, there are some conditions for which we screen early in life. If we detect that a person has or is at risk for such a condition, we can then intervene in time to prevent or best manage it.

A good example is phenylketonuria (PKU). This is a genetic disorder in which an enzyme needed to properly metabolize a particular amino acid, phenylalanine, is rendered nonfunctional. As a result, a person with PKU who eats a normal diet can experience severe consequences including mental retardation.

Luckily, in most countries, newborns are screened for PKU. If it is detected, they can be put on a special diet in which phenylalanine is restricted and special supplements are provided. As a result, the person with PKU can live a normal, healthy life.

Fallon’s case raises the possibility that, as advocated by Adrian Raine, we may someday be able to screen children for a predisposition to psychopathy and, when they are identified as at-risk, intervene with special measures to prevent or best manage the development of violent or other dangerous propensities in at least some of them. Further research could be done to more specifically identify the types of measures that bring about the healthiest outcomes for such individuals and those around them. But it’s likely that these would include conscientious provision, throughout these youngsters’ upbringings, of the abundance of love and care for which Fallon credits his own nonviolent lifestyle.

In other words, we may someday see a future when all, or at least at-risk, families will be tested for the markers of violence just the way Fallon’s was so that those who do have the brains and genes we find in psychopaths can more often develop into, say, professors like James Fallon rather than killers like too many others – including some of those he has studied for a living and quite a few of his recent ancestors.

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