Jim Fallon recently made a disquieting discovery: A member of his family has some of the biological traits of a psychopathic killer.
“These results will cause some problems at the next family party,” he said, reviewing the data on his laptop in his backyard. Meanwhile, his wife, Diane, stood in the kitchen, using a knife to slice through a blood-red pepper.
Dr. Fallon, 62 years old, is a neuroscientist who studies the biological basis of human behavior at the University of California’s campus here. He has analyzed the brains of more than 70 murderers on behalf of psychiatric clinics or criminal defense lawyers. It’s a young science. Because jailed killers rarely are permitted to take part in research trials, data linking genes and brain damage to violent crime are tentative and often disputed.
“In terms of early factors, we know nothing about who becomes an adult psychopath,” says Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania, who applies neuroscience techniques to study the causes and cures of crime.
Three years ago, as part of a personal project to assess his family’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Fallon collected brain scans and DNA samples from himself and seven relatives. At a barbecue soon thereafter, Dr. Fallon’s mother casually mentioned something he had been unaware of: His late father’s lineage was drenched in blood.
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