Dealing with violence through chemicals

Published: Sunday | November 3, 2013 Comments 0

Edward Seaga, Contributor

Sunday Gleaner columnist Ronald Mason recently made a proposal that "forced sterilisation is a last resort" - that is, if nothing else works in dealing with the recent upswing in violent crime. Robbery appears to be growing brazenly. Downtown, uptown, and the rural areas are feeling this onslaught.

It is understandable then that the call for action is now. But what action? Sterilisation will not be acceptable. It is too drastic and impractical, and it would be an offence against human rights.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reading a book titled Inside the Brain, authored by science journalist Ronald Kotulak. It struck me as a most interesting work, especially because it was dealing with critical problems connected to the operations of the brain. Many people must have shared this view of his mastery of the subject because he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

He approached the assignment of opening the brain to public view as it affected social problems, in particular, and, what is more noteworthy, from the point of view of early childhood development. In the introduction, he explains: "The discovery that early childhood experiences physically shape the infant brain, thereby determining its capacity power and emotional equilibrium, is profoundly changing the way we think about the intellectual needs of children."

The author points out the immense potential of the infant brain, which is like a sop absorbing the experiences it sees, feels, smells, hears and touches, weaving them into a web of learning through neurons in the brain.

EFFECTS OF ENVIRONMENT

The problem is that infants and tots do not all receive the same quality information and in the same loving manner. Some are exposed to harsh, even physically violent discipline in teaching toddlers how to control their bladders and bowels. A UNICEF study found that some 60 per cent of little children in Jamaica are exposed to corporal punishment.

Kotulak was deeply challenged by the new understanding of the brain, which he learned from interviewing some 200 scientists who helped to formulate a new knowledge base with profound implications for public policy.

Issues such as child development, mental health, impact of the criminal justice system, and self-improvement could now be seen in a different light.

"Studies show that as the brain gets built, using the outside world to create from the 1,000 trillion connectors, half of which die off by age 10 or so, leaving 500 trillion that last for most of its life," Kotulak reveals. This overproduction is to make sure that there is enough "wiring available to make all the connections".

This intricate organ can be damaged, whether from environmental threats or stress or from alcohol, stroke, violence or head trauma. The study of this area of brain behaviour, which is called biogenetics, deals with the biology of violence and a deeper understanding of alcohol and drug addiction searching for better treatments. Inside the Brain is about these sociopathic behaviours.

I will pause here for a personal intervention. From my early teens I was very fascinated by the use of the brain to create knowledge. On entering Harvard at the age 18, I was not certain what I wanted to study. What I did know was I wanted to be in an area of discovery where I would use my brain. I was turned off by learning what had already been achieved.

I wanted to encounter new thought. At first, I thought this could be experienced by studying nuclear physics. The explosion of the atom bomb in 1945 had opened a literal arena of new thinking. But it did not take me long to recognise that it would require many years before I could develop my own thoughts in this field.

MYSTERY OF SOCIAL BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS

The social sciences offered the prospect of delving into the mysteries of human development from an early stage of study. Accordingly, I switched my major area of study to social sciences, in which I had no previous experience. Here, I met the opposite problem. Psychiatry, in which I thought I could develop an interest, suffered from insufficient precise solutions to make it, to my mind, a science. At that time, pills and injections were not yet opening puzzling mental problems to specific biological treatments.

I longed for the day when social behavioural problems involving the brain would be treated by medication. That is what has now been emerging with much headway.

Inside the Brain looks at the biology of violence and addiction with a view to shedding light by particular biological treatments to criminal violence and drug addiction. "It was only in the last half of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the discovery of the first antipsychotic drugs, that science confirmed the biological basis of mental illness and developed successful new treatments for it. The brain had been left out of the whole paradigm of the criminal justice system. The advent of psychiatric drugs curtailed expansion of building new mental hospitals and emptied some of them with violent patients," says Dr Stuart Yudofsky of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Interest in biological research for treatment of social problems like aggression is spreading, but the focus seems to be on neurotransmitters. Dr Eric Coccaro of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, who has dedicated his career to finding ways to treat the biological causes of aggression, says, "We are going to need to come up with effective medications that increase the threshold for acting aggressively and combine them with psychological interventions like behaviour modification."

DRUG DISCOVERY

Inside the Brain states that new serotonin drugs are surprising scientists in the kind of basic drives they modulate. A Swedish drug, Amperozide, was tested in pigs to determine if it could prevent their normal aggressive behaviour. It was so successful that European farmers now use it to prevent aggression in their pigs, thereby avoiding the stress that otherwise would occur.

A further thought is that tryptophan, the compound that turns into serotonin in the brain, might be added to bread and other staples (Tooth decay was successfully fought with the addition of fluorine to toothpaste). Serotonin can also be increased by eating carbohydrates, as well as turkey, chicken, salmon, peanuts, green peas, and milk.

The most profound discovery is that genetic defects produce abnormal levels of serotonin and noradrenaline, two potent brain chemicals that researchers have successfully manipulated to make animals more violent or less violent. Several studies also suggest that threatening environments can trigger serotonin and noradrenaline imbalances in genetically susceptible people, laying the biochemical foundation for a lifetime of violent behaviour.

Such ominous trends as the collapse of the family structure, the surge in single parenting, persistent poverty, and chronic drug abuse can actually tip the brain chemistry into an aggressive mode - an effect that was once thought impossible.

These and other findings raise the hope that violent behaviour, eventually, can be curbed by manipulating the chemical and genetic keys to aggression. The findings also raise fears.

The prospect of being able to determine a person's propensity for violence by measuring levels of brain chemicals - and then regulating those levels - raises several ethical issues. It is virtually certain, for example, that simple screening tests will be developed to determine levels of serotonin and noradrenaline. Antiviolence medications conceivably could be given, perhaps forcibly, to people with abnormal levels.

Normal aggression has a set point, like body temperature, which is regulated by brain chemicals. Most people are born with a balance of these chemicals that enables them to react to events in reasonable ways. But changing that set point can either increase aggression or lower it.

Researchers are learning how this set point can be altered, and they have found that the mechanism for change is shared by humans and animals manipulating the two neurotransmitters, which enable brain cells to talk to each other in peace or squabble in anger: Serotonin is the brain's master impulse modulator for all of our emotions and drives. It especially keeps aggression in line. When serotonin falls, violence rises, like some long-subdued monster breaking free of its bonds.

Noradrenaline is the alarm hormone. It organises the brain to respond to danger, producing adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare the body to fight or flee. Noradrenaline may play a major role in both hot-blooded and cold-blooded violence. When noradrenaline is turned on 'high' and left there, impulsive violence of the hot-blooded type becomes more likely. High noradrenaline and low serotonin appear to be behind the rise of impulsive, hot-blooded crime in the United States, according to Inside the Brain.

In summary, Inside the Brain says many things:

  • It was published in 1996 and there may be many other developments which can now be more definitive about a dynamic approach to sociological problems with genetic or biological treatments of the brain;
  • It may also be that the outcome of further research has been passive;
  • It is worthwhile for the neurological community in universities and private practice to set up a team to explore whether there is now a solution at hand for treating violence-prone people chemically/biologically, including prisoners;

We are apparently actively following the path of decriminalising ganja without searching for neurological evidence as to whether it will be harmful or harmless;

Certainly, then, it would be more beneficial to take the route of researching findings in psychogenetics, which may have developed to the point that it has the answers we are searching for. All that is required is talking to the right people who are experts in the research.

Edward Seaga is a former prime minister. He is now chancellor of the University of Technology and a distinguished fellow at the UWI. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and odf@uwimona.edu.jm.

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