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Disturbing traits can be identified in children as young as three, indicating the likelihood of them going on to a life of crime.
It is believed that violent tendencies are biological in nature and can therefore be identified through tests and brain scans of children. This opens up the possibility that children who have the potential to go on to become violent individuals can be identified at an early stage and undergo treatment to attempt to prevent criminal behaviour.
One of the scientists involved in the recent research, Prof Adrian Raine, a British criminologist, argued that abnormal physical brain make-up could be a cause of criminality, as well as helping to predict it.
He went on to say 'If you told me my son had an 80 per cent chance of being a psychopath, but that he could be treated for it, I would have him treated. But it has to be a decision made by individuals, not by scientists.'
Professor Raine, a former Home Office criminologist who currently works at the University of Pennsylvania, studied brain scans of prisoners. His studies have shown that psychopaths and criminals have smaller areas of the brain such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, both of which regulate and control emotion and behaviour.
He also believes that a lack of conditioning to fear punishment, which can be measured in toddlers before disruptive behaviour is apparent, could also be a strong indicator.
Dr Nathalie Fontaine argues that children as young as four exhibited some 'callous unemotional traits' such as a lack of guilt and empathy that could also suggest future bad behaviour. Linking these features with 'conduct problems' such as throwing tantrums could be a strong way to predict who could be anti-social in later life.
Identifying these issues earlier could be important in stopping children from becoming criminals.
Dr Raine acknowledged the ethical implications of treating children before they had done anything wrong, but argued that the 'biological' causes of crime could not be ignored.
'We could be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand but I believe we have to pursue the causes of crime at a biological and genetic level as well as at a social,' he said.
22 Feb 2011