Exploring the neuroanatomy of a murderer

By scanning the brains of hundreds of convicted murderers, a recent study has zeroed in on significant differences in the gray matter of homicide offenders, compared with that of people who have carried out other violent crimes.

A new study examines the brains of killers. In 2016, there were an estimated 17,250 murders in the United States.

Homicide, of course, has a devastating impact on individuals and society at large.

As such, it is essential to study the biological, psychological, and social basis of these terrible acts.

Although earlier studies have looked at how a murderer's brain might differ from that of a non-murderer, they have often been flawed.

A group of scientists recently set out to fill in some of the gaps, and they designed the largest study of its type, to date. The researchers have published their findings in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.

Flaws in earlier work
Earlier studies using PET scans, carried out in the 1990s, concluded that homicide offenders' brains demonstrated reduced activity in a number of brain regions.

These include parts of the prefrontal cortex — which is a region that is important for moderating social behavior, among many other things — and the amygdala, which plays a vital role in processing emotions.

Although the findings were interesting, the researchers had exclusively enrolled participants who had been found "not guilty by reason of insanity." Therefore, any of the differences that the scientists measured could have been due to mental illness or brain injury, rather than homicidal tendencies.

Other, later studies have investigated the brains of violent individuals with conditions such as schizophrenia. These researchers have found changes in similar brain regions, but they face the same issues. As the authors of the new study explain:

"They are not sufficient to discriminate homicide from other violent outcomes or from other psychiatric disorders."

A new approach
Many of the earlier studies used non-incarcerated individuals as a control group, which is far from ideal. To remedy this, in their latest project, the authors only recruited inmates.

In total, the scientists took data from 808 adult male inmates; each participant fitted into one of three groups:

  • homicide offenders (203 individuals)
  • violent offenders who had not carried out a homicide (475 individuals)
  • nonviolent or minimally violent offenders (130 individuals)

Importantly, they excluded individuals with a psychotic disorder and any who had lost consciousness for more than 2 hours as the result of a traumatic brain injury.

The scientists did not include any person who had been convicted of a crime that could have involved an accidental death. They also excluded participants who had not been directly involved in the offense.

Alongside MRI scans, the researchers considered other details, including information about substance use, participants' age, and how long they had been in prison. They also estimated each participant's IQ.

Compared with the violent and nonviolent offenders, the brains of the homicide offenders were significantly different; and this difference remained apparent, even after the scientists controlled for the factors mentioned above.

Interestingly, there were no significant differences between the brains of violent and nonviolent offenders. It seems that the neuroanatomy of a murderer is unique.

Where were the differences?
The scientists saw deficits in a range of brain regions, including the ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insula, cerebellum, and posterior cingulate cortex. According to the authors:

"The reductions in gray matter among homicide offenders were evident in a number of brain areas important for affective processing, social cognition, and strategic behavioral control."