Scientists have found a gene variation that can cause adultsto become aggressive, antisocial adults when they wereabused as children. This is the first link betweenantisocial behavior and a specific gene.
It helps explain why, although almost all adult criminalshave been abused as children, the majority of abusedchildren grow up to be normal adults.
About one-third of men have the "low-activity" version ofthe gene for monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), an enzyme thatbreaks down neurotransmitters, such as serotonin anddopamine, that give people a positive outlook on life. Theabsence of this gene is linked to aggression.
The study of 1,037 males in New Zealand shows that thelow-activity form of the gene alone does not mean a personis destined to an adult who breaks the rules. But childrenwith this gene variation who were also abused grow up tocommit more crimes. Adults with the faulty gene and anabusive background made up only 12 per cent of the study butwere responsible for 44 per cent of the crimes.
"The combination of the low-activity MAOA genotype andmaltreatment predicts antisocial behaviors as well as highcholesterol predicts heart disease," says Terrie Moffitt ofKing's College, London.
The kind of abuse that creates conditions for adultcriminality can be physical or sexual, and includes frequentchanges in the main caregiver or rejection by the mother.This kind of childhood is experienced by many children whoend up in foster care. "As adults, 85 per cent of theseverely mistreated children who also had the gene for lowMAOA activity developed antisocial outcomes, such as violentcriminal behavior," says Moffitt.
The MAOA gene is located on the X chromosome. Males haveonly one X chromosome, while females have two. So femaleswith a low-activity form of the gene could also have ahigh-activity "protective" version that would cancel out thenegative effect. This might help to explain why men are moreviolent than women. Scientists don?t know if drugs wouldhelp alleviate the gene?s effect.
This new finding means that children who are likely to growup to be aggressive and anti-social could be targeted at ayoung age. Adult criminals could be genetically tested andreceive longer sentences if they have the faulty gene, sinceit would predict a life of crime. We could even reach thepoint where we genetically tested young children and eithersequestered them, or put them on lifelong drugs, dependingupon whether they had the MAOA gene.
Ian Craig, head of molecular genetics at the MRC Social,Genetic and Developmental Research Center in the U.K. says,"?If you knew someone had an abusive background, you'd wantto do something about that background.?
In the recent film ?Minority Report,? pre-cognition allowspolice to arrest murderers before they kill. With genetictesting, we could achieve the same result. We may not wantto face having to isolate a few genetically-flawedindividuals in order to protect the majority, but we maysoon have to confront that responsibility. Welcome to thefuture.
See news story ?What Turns Men into Monsters??,click here.
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