Expert: Brain composition may be key to why kids kill

Brain Scans

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – In the search for answers after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some of the victims’ families wanted to know whether science could help.

Brain Study

  • Who: 200 New Mexico male inmates, ages 12 to 18
  • What: The group was split into two categories: incarcerated adolescent males who committed murder (n=20) and incarcerated adolescent males who did not commit murder (n=135). Scientists took pictures of the inmates’ brains and found offenders who committed murder had less grey matter in their brains than their peers. Grey matter keeps emotions in check and governs decision-making and self control. The results had an accuracy rate of 85 percent.
  • When: From June 2007 to March 2011

Twenty children had died. So had six staff members of the Newton, Connecticut school in the second-deadliest mass shooting in American history.

The killer, Adam Lanza, was 20-years-old.

The families wanted to know why.

One of the people they asked was Dr. Kent Kiehl, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, who serves as a scientific advisory board member for a foundation started by one of the Sandy Hook families.

Kiehl study’s brains and, as it turned out, he had spent four years between 2007 and 2011 looking at the brains of 12 to 18-year-old children who had committed crimes. It was a good match.

“They created the foundation in order to try to fund research to do neuroscience to help understand why kids commit these types of crimes, why these types of things happen,” Kiehl told News 13 in a recent interview. “And is there anything that we can do to try to prevent them?

“What we did was divide them up by kids who committed a homicide in the past versus kids in the system who didn’t commit a homicide and asked: Is there anything different about the brains of the kids who committed homicide versus their peers in the prison?”

The answer was a resounding “yes,” and the results, experts here say, could have far-reaching implications for the juvenile system.

With an 85 percent accuracy rate, Kiehl found those who had committed murder had less grey matter in temporal lobes of their brains compared to those who hadn’t. Grey matter is referred to as the “thinking area” of the brain, which keeps emotions in check and governs decision-making and self-control.

Kiehl said temporal lobes are often the last parts of the brain to develop, which could indicate that kids who commit murder are not fully comprehending the consequences of their actions.

“That might contribute to them making a bad decision, which then gives us real hope that we might be able to develop treatments and ways of preventing this from ever happening,” Kiehl said.

That’s welcome news to two top officials in New Mexico — a state that has a long and painful past with juveniles accused of committing murder.

“This kind of information is critical when we start to look at new tools, new treatment measures, new medications that might even help,” said Tom Swisstack, Deputy Bernalillo County Manager for Public Safety.

Those tools could include more supervision for kids whose brains show they’re a high risk to commit violent crimes and less restrictive alternatives to jail for lower-risk kids, said Swisstack, who spent the better part of three decades as an administrator in the juvenile justice system.

“If you’re in a position to help minimize murder, and young people, I’m talking primarily young people, then I think we need to start thinking a little differently, outside this box,” he said.

Brain Study

  • Where: Juvenile jails in New Mexico, primarily YDDC in Albuquerque
  • Why: Researchers hope an early detection brain scan could help those in the criminal justice system cater services to kids who are identified as “high-risk,” or who have less grey matter in the brain, before they commit a crime. Among those services could include more supervision and intensive treatment programs.
  • How: A one-of-a-kind mobile MRI machine taken to the juvenile jails captured the brain scan images and an algorithm was used to study the grey matter of the brain.

Swisstack said more research like Kiehl’s is warranted, and that will cost money.

But if the research leads to prevention, it could save the system a fortune in both future financial burdens and tragedy.

He pointed to figures in Kiehl’s study that show the overall cost to the system for homicide in 2011 was more than $250 billion.

Kiehl told KRQE News 13 that brain scans for kids — if doctors performed thousands of them per year — would cost less than $500 each. (That cost would rise into the tens of thousands of dollars if doctors only performed, say, 10 scans each year.)

William Parnall, a Bernalillo County Children’s Court judge, said research like Kiehl’s could provide valuable insight for those in his line of work.

“When a judge sentences a juvenile, it is important for the judge  to understand the difference between the way a juvenile brain and an adult  brain functions,” Parnall told News 13 in an email. “For example, when we are tempted to ask: ‘What were you  thinking?’ the correct answer is that the juvenile was not thinking, because his or her brain is not yet as capable of rational thinking in the same way as an adult brain is.

“But when the act has very serious consequences, it is important for a judge to be versed enough in the research to know how  to apply the concepts of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation to fashion a disposition that will benefit the community as well as the juvenile.”

The juvenile brain study isn’t Kiehl’s first.

In October, UNM announced that he would scan the brains of hundreds of Lobo athletes to examine the effects of concussions.

And in 2012, he studied adult criminal offenders’ brains to examine recidivism patterns. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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