Out-thinking crime

By Tom Burton

Wednesday October 4, 2017

There is a biological basis to crime and violence which policy makers need recognise, according to US-based Professor Adrian Raine.

“While violence is a major public health problem, it is less frequently appreciated that early health disadvantages increase a child’s risk for later antisocial, violent, and criminal behaviour … For me, there is a brain basis to crime,” says Raine.

According to Raine’s research, the offspring of mothers who experience an inadequate diet are two and a half times more likely to develop antisocial behaviours in future adulthood.

Raine is the Richard Perry university professor in the Departments of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and partner investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course.

Raine is noted for his research into the neurobiological and biosocial causes of antisocial behaviour. He is delivering a keynote speech at the International Life Course Conference being held in Sydney on October 24-26.

“My research suggests that a life of crime and violence is not necessarily a destiny into which we are locked by social and environmental factors, but rather there is a biological basis for these behaviours; we can change the biological risk factors that have been shown to lead to these antisocial behaviours.”

His presentation will provide an overview of health risk factors that occur early in life which can negatively impact the brain and predispose a person to commit crimes and exhibit violent behaviour including the important role good nutrition plays in the developing brain of a fetus and its impact on crime in later years.

Other risk factors include exposure to nicotine and carbon monoxide from pregnant mothers who smoke, which in turn affects the developing fetus’s brain; alcohol consumption during pregnancy; and environmental toxins, for example lead exposure, which is associated with later antisocial and violent behaviour.

Raine believes we can screen and intervene to improve the outcomes of at-risk children, although this in itself can have ethical implications and risks stigmatising these children. Raine says:

“If you buy the assumption that a bad brain leads to bad behaviour, then we can look at ways to upregulate the brain to reduce the likelihood of future crime and violence. Better nutrition, more physical exercise and cognitive stimulation, for example, can upregulate brain functioning to reduce future antisocial and violent behaviour. By intervening in a child’s life by the age of three years it is possible to reduce crime by 34% 20 years later.

“I am optimistically cautious about what we can do.”

The 2017 Life Course Conference will feature several international keynotes presenting on initiatives and research about improving disadvantage over peoples life cycle. Several public agencies including the Federal Department of Social Services, NSW Family and Community Services, and the Queensland Department of Education and Training will also be presenting on various initiatives to increase social mobility.

Professor Raine will also be presenting a public lecture at The University of Queensland on October 30, 2017. Details here.

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