Violent offending and the brain

Violent offending can be associated with impaired structure and function in a number of areas of the brain. Professor Anthony Beech presents a review of literature today (18 April) at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference held at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London (18-20 April).

Professor Beech from the University of Birmingham draws on evidence from a wide range of study methodologies, including neuro-imaging, neuropsychological and skin conductance measures. He points to a range of evidence that suggests that violent offending is related to altered structure and function within areas of the 'social brain', namely the amygdala, orbital prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.

The review also describes evidence showing that a range of environmental and genetic factors put an individual at risk of violent offending. Environmental factors identified in the presentation, include prenatal exposure to smoking and alcohol, obstetric complications, nutrition and early attachment relationships, which Professor Beech argues can "set the scene" for future offending.

He refers to evidence of an interaction between such environmental factors and genes in the development of antisocial behaviour. Twin studies, for example, have supported the idea of a combined role of genes and environmental factors in explaining aggressive behaviour.

Professor Beech said: "While a great deal is known about the neurobiology of the social brain, very little is written about these areas in relation to violent offending. A number of lines of evidence suggest altered brain function and structure in these areas of the brain and violent offending."

Drawing on neuro-imaging and other physiological evidence, Professor Beech concluded: "This knowledge can help us to understand, identify, and hopefully predict individuals who criminally offend."

Professor Beech argues that interventions that target modifiable risk factors, for example those aimed at reducing alcohol and smoking exposure prenatally, and parent training in the early childhood years, should be aimed at those at risk of these factors with the aim of ultimately reducing violent offending.