Mind of a murderer: Brain imaging helps scientists in search for ‘killer gene’

Kent Kiehl, PhD, of the University of New Mexico, spends his days peering inside the brains of murderers, rapists, arsonists and other violent criminals using an fMRI scanner. To date, he’s performed scans on more than 4,000 criminals at eight separate prisons, amassing what amounts to the world’s largest library of forensic neuroscience research.

He’s looking for clues about how physical, functional and genetic differences cause some people to be predisposed to violent acts, as he explained in a recent cover story for Popular Science.

“They have different brains,” Kiehl said, adding that variations in the brain structures of psychopaths, including reduced gray matter and smaller amygdalas, are “at least 50 percent caused by genetics.”

Research into these genetic causes is centered around a variant of the X chromosome that codes the enzyme monoamine oxidase-A (MAOA), a gene linked to violence and psychopathic behaviors.

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