Posts Tagged ‘ DNA ’

A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret

Barbara Bradley Hagerty in NPR:

The criminal brain has always held a fascination for James Fallon. For nearly 20 years, the neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine has studied the brains of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how a killer’s brain differs from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a family barbecue.

“I said, ‘Jim, why don’t you find out about your father’s relatives?’ ” Jenny Fallon recalls. “I think there were some cuckoos back there.”

Fallon investigated.

“There’s a whole lineage of very violent people — killers,” he says.

One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. “Cousin Lizzy,” as Fallon wryly calls her, was accused (and controversially acquitted) of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.

A little spooked by his ancestry, Fallon set out to see whether anyone in his family possesses the brain of a serial killer. Because he has studied the brains of dozens of psychopaths, he knew precisely what to look for. To demonstrate, he opened his laptop and called up an image of a brain on his computer screen.

“Here is a brain that’s not normal,” he says. There are patches of yellow and red. Then he points to another section of the brain, in the front part of the brain, just behind the eyes.

“Look at that — there’s almost nothing here,” Fallon says.

This is the orbital cortex, the area that Fallon and other scientists believe is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control.

“People with low activity [in the orbital cortex] are either free-wheeling types or sociopaths,” he says.

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Biology 2.0

A special report on the human genome in The Economist:

TEN years ago, on June 26th 2000, a race ended. The result was declared a dead heat and both runners won the prize of shaking the hand of America’s then president, Bill Clinton, at the White House. The runners were J. Craig Venter for the private sector and Francis Collins for the public. The race was to sequence the human genome, all 3 billion genetic letters of it, and thus—as headline writers put it—read the book of life.

It quite caught the public imagination at the time. There was the drama of a maverick upstart, in the form of Dr Venter and his newly created firm, Celera, taking on the medical establishment, in the form of Dr Collins’s International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. There was the promise of a cornucopia of new drugs as genetic targets previously unknown to biologists succumbed to pharmacological investigation. There was talk of an era of “personalised medicine” in which treatments would be tailored to an individual’s genetic make-up. There was the frisson of fear that a genetic helotry would be created, doomed by its DNA to second-class health care, education and employment. And there was, in some quarters, a hope that a biotech boom based on genomics might pick up the baton that the internet boom had just dropped, and that lots and lots of money would be made.

And then it all went terribly quiet. The drugs did not appear. Nor did personalised medicine. Neither did the genetic underclass. And the money certainly did not materialise. Biotech firms proved to be just as good at consuming cash as dotcom start-ups, and with as little return. The casual observer, then, might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing a damp squib, and the $3 billion spent on the project to be so much wasted money. But the casual observer would be wrong. As The Economist observed at the time, the race Dr Venter and Dr Collins had been engaged in was a race not to the finish but to the starting line. Moreover, compared with the sprint they had been running in the closing years of the 1990s, the new race marked by that starting line was a marathon.

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