“I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”- Patrick Bateman, from the movie “American Psycho”
A serial killer is a person who murders three or more people in at least three separate events and has a cooling off period in between murders. Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer were all serial killers and, therefore, have one thing in common: They have similar brain structures that make them prone to commit murder. Genetic alterations in chromosomes, history of child abuse and alterations in brain anatomy patterns are three key ingredients that create a recipe for a serial killer.
Prone to violence
Research has shown that, because of their brain anatomy, serial killers never develop a sense of attachment or belonging to other human beings,which means they do not empathize with their victims. “Criminals do have broken brains,” wrote Adrian Raine, a neurocriminologist and a pioneer researcher who studied brain imaging in violent criminals. His research used PET scans of the brain in 41 violent California prisoners, who either attempted or committed murder, to determine whether their brain anatomy and neurochemistry was different compared to the nonviolent control group.
The murderers’ brains showed what appeared to be a significant reduction in the development of the orbitofrontal cortex, the executive function of the brain, compared with the control group. The study suggested that such a deficiency could result in an increased tendency toward a number of behaviors: less control over emotions such as anger and rage, greater addiction to risk, less self-control and poor problem-solving capacity. All of these traits might predispose an individual toward violence.
The orbitofrontal cortex is the area that is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control. The orbital cortex helps control the amygdala part of the brain, which is involved with aggression and addiction. Damage to the orbitofrontal cortex leads to disinhibited behavior, such as excessive swearing, poor social interaction, hypersexuality, compulsive gambling and drug use. Frontotemporal dementia, such as Pick disease, results from destruction of this area and patients with this disease show these types of disinhibited behaviors.
Correlation in addict’s brain
Low activity of the orbital cortex means lesser ability to suppress compulsions like violence, eating, sex and drinking. The core components of addiction, such as excessive drug use and drug relapse, are also mediated in the orbitofrontal cortex, establishing a parallel correlation between an addict’s brain and a serial killer’s brain.
Imaging studies in cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol, benzodiazepine and heroin users revealed altered metabolism in the orbitofrontal cortex causing a disruption in the neural function and dopamine pathways associated with this area of the brain. The mesolimbic dopamine system is critical for drug reward-seeking behavior and is tightly connected to the orbitofrontal cortex.
The majority of serial killers, up to 70 percent, are drug addicts. While in prison, Bundy used alcohol, marijuana and pornography, because he could no longer commit murder. His dopamine pathways were starved and these alternative addictions were necessary to trigger his reward center in the orbitofrontal cortex.
‘Nurture’ plays a role
The neuroanatomical correlation between addicts and serial killers does not necessarily mean that every drug addict will become a serial killer. Research reveals that there is a certain genetic makeup in serial killers and the majority of them were abused in childhood. The MAO-A (monoamine oxidase A) gene, also known as the “warrior gene” because it regulates serotonin in the brain, is expressed in higher concentrations in serial killers than in nonviolent populations.
Famous neuroscientist James Fallon discovered that he had the brain and genetic makeup of a psychopath. He scanned his own brain and found out that his orbitofrontal cortex had low activity and that he had the variant of the MAO-A gene, yet he has never murdered anyone. He was raised in a very loving and supportive family, to which he attributes his successful life and compassionate personality. After learning about his brain and genetic makeup, he took a more proactive role in demonstrating compassion and kindness to offset any predispositions with which he was born. So this begs the question: Should people be screened in childhood by undergoing brain scans and genetic analysis for this gene?
Although there are no research studies to identify the risks and benefits of screening children for genetic manifestations of a serial killer gene, there are behavioral components that parents should be aware of. If you have or know a child who exhibits aggression, has emotional outbursts or actively defies authority, seek help to prevent this behavior from worsening and advancing into adulthood. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego can help. Please call 866-615-7266 to learn more about our programs for substance abuse, mental health and co-occurring conditions.