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Thursday, December 17, 2009Your DNA frightening? Could Be
by Kathryn Casey
Imagine being Dr. Jim Fallon, a Fulbright Scholar and professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of California - Irvine. He set out to find out if psychopathic killers have certain biological traits that will show up on brain scans. When he finished his testing, he found the signs in a member of his own family.
The article about Fallon that caught my attention ran in the November 27th edition of the Wall Street Journal under the headline: What's on Jim Fallon's Mind? A Family Secret That Has Been Murder to Figure Out. On his bio, Fallon says: "I am interested in the neural circuitry and genetics of creativity, artistic talent, psychopathology, criminal behavior, and levels of consciousness."
Over the years, Fallon has analyzed the brains of more than 70 murderers. His interest in looking into the minds of dangerous criminals comes from an honest curiosity. The 62-year-old scientist started out by trying to assess his relatives' risk of developing Alzheimer's, which killed his father. The hitch was that his father came from a rather unusual family. Early ancestors included Thomas Cornell, who in 1673 who was hanged for murdering his mother. (The WSJ describes this as one of "the first recorded acts of matricide in the Colonies.") There were others, seven men suspected of murder on Fallon's family tree, and, it appears, one infamous female. It turns out that Professor Fallon is a distant cousin of Lizzie Borden. Yes, that Lizzie Borden. (Are there others?) To be fair, let's remember that Borden was acquitted of killing her parents with an ax. Although many, including our own WCI historian, Laura James, believe Borden was the culprit.
Anyway, it appeared there could be some particularly interesting genes floating around in Fallon's family. Thus, perhaps, it wasn't surprising that Fallon decided to look for evidence of violent traits by comparing the family brain scans with those he'd collected of the violent criminals he'd been analyzing.
Through his research, Fallon had found that violent offenders' scans often displayed areas of diminished activity in important areas of the brain, including the section thought to monitor self-control. You may remember that awhile back on WCI, I reported on different theories regarding why certain folks become violent criminals. Fallon's work suggests a three-pronged explanation for violence: a combination of genetics, brain damage, and childhood trauma. What Fallon was testing for was evidence in the scans of the presence of factor number one, what one might call "violent genes." The most accepted one, MAOA, is the so-called "warrior gene."
When Fallon examined the brain scans of his family, he found the abnormalities he'd noted in killers in one member. And the scan that was on the screen that day was of his own brain.
Yup, Jim Fallon discovered that his brain scan suggested he'd inherited the genetic risk factors he'd documented in dangerous psychopaths. On the scan, the areas of his brain involved in social adjustment, aggression and impulsivity, the orbital cortex, which lies just above the eye sockets, appeared dark or turned off. For Dr. Fallon, that moment must have been chilling.
So how did Dr. Fallon end up a respected scholar instead of a serial killer? Here's the final paragraph from the WSJ article: "Dr. Fallon thinks that one vital factor may have prevented him from becoming a killer. 'I had a charmed childhood,' he says. 'But if I'd been mistreated as a child, who knows what might have happened.'"
Interesting, don't you think?