Tuesday, July 28, 2015

no easy answer - but them bowl haircuts though...,

nature |  Connecticut’s state medical examiner has requested a full genetic analysis of mass killer Adam Lanza, who shot 20 children, 6 school staff, his mother and himself in Newtown in December. At first glance, it is easy to understand why. Confronted with such senseless violence, it is human nature to seek solace in scientific explanations. After John Wayne Gacy was executed in 1994 for the murder of 33 young men and boys, his brain was preserved and examined for clues to what made him a monster. More than 80 years ago, scientists reportedly studied the brain of serial killer Peter Kürten, the ‘vampire of Dusseldorf’, who was executed in 1931.

This quest to understand endures as technology advances. Now, instead of looking at cranial folds and frontal lobes for clues to the massacre, geneticists at the University of Connecticut in Farmington will scour Lanza’s genes. On its own, this hunt will be about as informative as studies of the brains of murderers: not very.

The Connecticut scientists will not talk about the job they have been handed. It is not clear what they will find, or even what they should look for. Suspend disbelief for a moment and pretend that a ‘mass-shooter gene’ exists — something that no serious geneticist believes — and scientists could still draw no conclusions from a single individual’s genome.

To be sure, many links and suggestions of links have been identified between genetics, mental illness and, to a lesser extent, violence. A study using Swedish registries (R. Kuja-Halkola et al. Dev. Psychopathol. 24, 739–753; 2012) found that children born to men older than 60 were more likely to be convicted of violent crimes than were those born to men aged 40–60 years, an observation that might be linked to increasing numbers of mutations in sperm as men age. Genetic risk factors have been identified for autism, depression and schizoid spectrum disorders, but they explain relatively little. People diagnosed with schizoid spectrum disorders are more likely to be convicted of violent crimes than are those with no such diagnosis, but the vast majority of people with mental illness do not commit crimes.

Such associations hold only for groups. Many healthy people carry mutations associated with disease; many people with mental illness carry no known risk factors. Mass shooters are often young white men, yet very few young white men become mass shooters. There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.

But there is a dangerous tendency to oversimplify, especially in the wake of tragedy.