How NOT to spot a murderer's brain

Update 13/05/13 12PM: The Guardian have now corrected the article to place David Eagleman's quote in appropriate context. 1.55PM: The paragraph has now been cut completely with the following note "A paragraph that misrepresented the views of the neuroscientist David Eagleman has been removed. The paragraph implied that Eagleman believed that the possession of particular genes resulted in criminal behaviour. This is not his belief, in his words, "Genes are part of the story, but they're not the whole story. We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up". 

An article by Tim Adams in yesterday's Observer (the Sunday edition of British newspaper The Guardian) is currently topping the most read list on The Guardian's science section. The piece makes a spine tingling case, the byline reads: "Do your genes, rather than upbringing, determine whether you will become a criminal?". The most damning segment of the article is the following quote from neuroscientist David Eagleman, taken utterly out of context:

"If you are a carrier of one particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You're three times as likely to commit a robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offence. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1% of death row inmates do… Can we honestly say that the carriers of those genes have exactly the same range of choices in their behaviour as those who do not possess them? And if they do not, should they be judged and punished by the same standard?"

Jim Parkinson, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Body and Action Group in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL helpfully pointed out on Twitter that Eagleman's punchline seems to somehow have been misplaced from the quoted text. Eagleman’s punchline is that the mystery gene in question is the Y chromosome. So yes, men are more likely to be arrested for most crimes but this tells us precious little regarding whether "genes, rather than upbringing, determine whether you will become a criminal" and that was Eagleman’s point! You can read Eagleman’s quote in full in a 2011 Atlantic article:


Jim Parkinson has submitted a letter The Observer which I've seen, I'll be watching closely to see if they publish it along with a correction on Sunday. If they don't I'll post it here on Monday. By the way, I've posted this debunking to Rbutr, a fantastically useful tool for debunking misinformation on the internet, it’s worth checking out and installing on your browser - it'll give you a small notification if an article you are reading has been debunked elsewhere and added to the system.

This article, like so many others written for legacy newspapers, is made infinitely, nightmarishly more difficult to assess because there are so many studies mentioned but few real references are provided. This means that if I'm to try to assess this or that point, I have to quite literally guess what studies the author is referring to. This task is no mean feat without even basic information such as names of the study authors or date of publication. This really is a tragic situation to be in two decades since hyperlinks became a basic feature of the internet. There's plenty more in this article that I'd love to address, but I simply don’t have the spare time to spend guestimating what studies the author might or might not be referring to. If you have been able to divine which studies the author refers to in this piece or if you'd like to add to the discussion please do so in the comments. For a slightly more balanced account of Adrian Raine’s case check out NPR’s interview which you can listen to here.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.