A key to reducing future rates of urban violence may lie in improving
childbirth-related health care programs and strengthening parent-infant
ties. These are the findings of a USC study strongly linking violent
crime with birth complications and early child rejection.
A study of 4,269 males born in Denmark between 1959 and 1961 has found
that those who suffered birth complications and who were rejected by
their mothers early in life were the group statistically most likely to
become violent criminals as adults.
“This is the first study to provide evidence from a large birth cohort
to show that birth complications in combination with a negative social
environment – specifically early child rejection – are associated with
violent crime,” said co-researcher Adrian Raine, associate professor of
Raine presented the findings Feb. 23 in a report to the American
Academy for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference in San
Francisco. The study’s co-researchers were Patricia Brennan, research
assistant professor of psychology, and Sarnoff A. Mednick, professor of
Raine, who serves as a consultant to the National Academy of Sciences
on biological bases of violence, also presented two new studies that
further support the argument that biological factors predispose certain
individuals toward violent and aggressive behavior. All three studies,
Raine said, show that violence could be reduced with the use of benign
health care interventions.
Using standard statistical techniques, the researchers looked at the
combination of delivery complications and early child rejection as a
possible predictor of subsequent violence at age 18.
They found a highly significant interaction, indicating that those who
suffered both birth complications and early child rejection were most
likely to become violent offenders in adulthood. The 3.4 percent who
fell into that category committed 22 percent of the group’s crimes.
“These findings illustrate the critical importance of integrating
biological with social measures in order to fully understand how
violence develops,” Raine said.
The interaction was specific to early child rejection in that no such
interaction was observed between birth complications and poor social
circumstances – such as single parenthood, low socio-economic status
and poor living conditions – in predicting violent crime.
“The fact that birth complications combined with child rejection, but
not the more general factor of poor social circumstance, predispose to
violence helps establish a more specific biosocial pathway toward
violent crime,” Raine said.
The study found no relationship between violent crime and individuals
who had suffered early child rejection but no birth complications.
“Our findings show that a raised rate of violence only occurred when
birth complications were combined with early child rejection,” Raine
said. “This indicates that better ante-natal and perinatal health care,
especially in under-served inner-city areas, may help reduce rates of
violence in the next generation.”
Additionally, the analysis revealed that birth complications did not
predispose to violence when combined with a nonrejecting early home
“This is consistent with previous findings that good parental care and
the opportunity to bond with a caregiver in the first year of life can
reduce the deleterious cognitive and behavioral effects of birth
complications,” Raine said. “Psychosocial interventions aimed at
improving parental caregiving skills may conceivably help suppress the
biological predisposition to later adult violence.”
In the study, violent crime was defined as murder, attempted murder,
assault (including domestic assault), rape, armed robbery and illegal
possession of weapons.
Birth complications included such factors as medical stimulation of
labor, ruptured perineum, irregular position, the use of forceps,
breech delivery and umbilical-cord prolapse. Such complications, Raine
suggests, can result in brain dysfunction and neuropsychological
deficits, which in turn directly and indirectly predispose to violence.
Early child rejection included such variables as an unwanted pregnancy,
a mother’s attempt to abort her pregnancy and a child’s being sent to
an institution for at least four months in the first year.
The 4,269 male subjects were drawn from a total cohort of 9,125
consecutive births of males and females at the State University
Hospital (Rigshospitalet) in Copenhagen between September 1959 and
December 1961. Birth complications and conditions were recorded at the
time of delivery. Demographic, family and psychosocial variables were
collected during pregnancy and when the child was 1 year old.
Criminal status was assessed by a search of the Danish National
Criminal Register when the offspring were aged 17 to 19. Seventy-five
subjects were classified as violent criminals, 610 as nonviolent
criminals and 3,584 as non-criminals.
The research was supported by awards from the National Institute of
Mental Health and a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
In another study, Raine and a team of researchers from UC Irvine
discovered that a group of murderers who had pleaded not guilty by
reason of insanity were characterized by prefrontal dysfunction. Using
positron-emission-tomography brain imaging, the researchers measured
local cerebral uptake of glucose in 22 murderers and 22 control
subjects of the same age and sex.
They found the murderers had significantly lower glucose metabolism in
the lateral and medial prefrontal cortex relative to controls. The
prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that controls the
expression and regulation of emotions.
“These findings are consistent with the notion that prefrontal
dysfunction may act as a predisposition to violence,” Raine said. “They
also raise the question of whether cognitive-behavioral techniques
could be used to compensate for these neuropsychological defects that
predispose to violence.”
The research was supported by funding from the Southern California
Injury Prevention Research Center and the National Institutes of
Raine’s third report to the AAAS presented the latest findings of
research examining the biological differences between antisocial
adolescents who, as adults, abandoned criminal activity and those who
continued to commit crimes.
Raine, along with two British colleagues, found that antisocial
adolescents who desisted from adult criminal behavior had higher levels
of arousal of the autonomic nervous system and higher electrodermal
orienting than those who continued in a life of crime.
The findings are part of an ongoing study. The subjects were 101
15-year-old English schoolboys. In 1978 and 1979, the researchers
measured in each boy the three most commonly used indicators of arousal
– resting heart rate, skin conductance level and resting EEG
Ten years later, a search of London’s computerized central Criminal
Records Office revealed that 17 of the 101 subjects had acquired
criminal records. When the researchers compared the 1978-79
measurements of the 17 future criminals and the other 84 subjects, they
found the future criminals had significantly lower heart rates than the
non-criminals, along with lower skin conductance activity and
slower-frequency EEG activity.
Criminal records were again screened in 1993. This analysis revealed
further offending by the 17 criminals, but no new subjects showed
evidence of criminal behavior in adulthood.
Seventeen individuals who had been classified as antisocial adolescents
but who had desisted from adult crime were then matched with the 17
adolescent antisocials who had become criminals by age 29, and with 17
non-antisocial, non-criminal control subjects. The researchers found
that those who desisted from adult crime had significantly higher
electrodermal and cardiovascular arousal and electrodermal orienting
than the criminal group.
“These initial findings suggest that individuals who are predisposed to
adult crime by virtue of showing antisocial behavior in adolescence may
be protected from crime by virtue of possessing heightened levels of
autonomic arousal and orienting,” Raine said.
The findings, he added, suggest that altering arousal levels could
reduce levels of antisocial behavior. And techniques such as
biofeedback training – which has been used to increase arousal levels
as a treatment for hyperactive children – could be used to help reduce
crime and violence.
Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute of Mental
[Photo:] Psychology researchers Sarnoff A. Mednick, Patricia Brennan
and Adrian Raine.