Penn professor pieces together jigsaw puzzle of violence

Adrian Raine, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine, has been conducting groundbreaking research on the biological causes of aggressive and anti-social behavior for 37 years. Having established indisputable links between brain deficiencies and violent criminal behavior, he says the most pressing question is: What can we do about it?

“Biology is not destiny,” he says. “People have thought it is, but it is not. We can change a brain that is biologically predisposed to crime and violence.”

His latest study, part of a nearly 30-year series he has conducted on the African island nation of Mauritius, has uncovered one way to do just that. Published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Raine’s team supplemented the diets of at-risk children with Omega-3, a long-chain fatty acid critical to brain structure and function, to see if it would repair the brain and improve the children’s aggressive, antisocial behavior.

The researchers found that the Omega-3 supplements significantly reduced these behaviors not only in the treated children by 42 percent, but also in their parents; this reduction accounted for 61 percent of the treated children’s improvement. Approaching aggression and violence as a public health problem, Raine’s team sees these findings as indicative of the community-wide impact that could come from treating the whole population. Repairing the brains of people predisposed to violent behavior, in conjunction with relevant social interventions, could very well prevent the next generation of serious adult violent offenders from ever committing violent crimes.

“To me, violence is like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s made up of lots of different pieces,” Raine says. “We’ve known about the social pieces for a long time, such as child abuse, poverty, discrimination, but recently we’ve been turning over these biological pieces: poor prefrontal functioning, structural impairments to the brain, low physiological arousal, poor nutrition. So, the challenge is putting all these pieces together to explain the whole of crime and violence.”

The complex task of understanding the biological pieces and how they interlock with the social pieces has required Raine to integrate psychophysiology, genetics, neuropsychology, and brain imaging, as well as the study of hormones and lead exposure, into his work. It also necessitates close collaboration with colleagues across a host of disciplines.

Raine believes this kind of latitudinal approach will enable criminologists to identify key social and biological factors—such as poverty and poor nutrition—and learn how they interact to ignite violent behavior.

“Perhaps looking at ways that poor nutrition and other consequences of poverty can predispose the brain toward criminal behavior will enable us to make a real difference in the future,” Raine says.

Adrian Raine