Violence and Biochemistry

By Donald R. Davis, Ph.D.

Regarding violence in our society as purely a sociologic matter or one of law enforcement, has led to unmitigated failure. It is time to test further whether violence can be amenable to medical public health interventions.

C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General

It should come as no surprise that researchers find links between biochemistry and behavior.

Some find it a new and strange idea that biochemistry could affect behavior. But the idea is neither new nor strange. Probably every parent learns that a too-hungry infant or child can be irritable and unreasonable. Adults may find the same tendency in themselves. In these cases a simple meal or snack can improve mood and thinking.

Similarly, biochemists have known for over 50 years that vitamin deficiency can cause mental symptoms. Best known is the dementia of pellagra, caused by severe niacin deficiency. Less well known are the mental symptoms of scurvy, a severe vitamin C deficiency, and of many other vitamin deficiencies. Toxins, too, disrupt brain function.  Alcohol toxicity has been known for millennia. and it illustrates an important point: Different individuals react differently to impaired brain chemistry. Some may become loud, aggressive, and perhaps violent. Others are giggly or talkative, or instead, withdrawn or sleepy. Many other drugs affect behavior, ranging from the drowsiness of antihistamines to the sudden outbursts of violence associated with anabolic steroids used by some athletes and body builders. Most effects of alcohol and drugs seem reversible simply by abstinence, but not so the brain toxicity of lead. Even low levels found in many American children cause long-lasting, slight deficits in learning and IQ.

Our brain cells, like all others on earth, require many nutrients, and they are vulnerable to many toxins. If their biochemistry falters, behavior suffers. It should come as no surprise that researchers find links between biochemistry and behavior. Here I will cite a few examples.

First, let’s be clear: No informed person should claim that bad nutrition or toxins cause crime or violence. Most persons consuming alcohol or anabolic steroids do not suddenly become criminal or violent. Only a few susceptible individuals do. Further, many other factors may be important. Neither malnutrition, toxins, alcohol, bad homes, rap lyrics, nor violent movies cause crime or violence. But there are reasons to think I that all of these sometimes contribute to social pathologies. If they do, we may be able to find acceptable, useful ways to reduce the terrible toll of violence. Only careful experiments can show what works and what is practical.

For example, probation officers Alexander Schauss and Barbara Reed wrote books about 15 years ago suggesting that their parolees benefited from improved diets and nutritional supplements. Since then, Steve I Schoenthaler, now at California State University at Stanislaus, has performed a long series of progressively more rigorous experiments. Most recently, he gave broad nutritional supplements or placebos to 400 incarcerated youths for 15 weeks. Preliminary reports point to about 40% fewer assaults and other serious infractions in those receiving the supplements. Earlier experiments found similar benefits with improved diets, without supplements. If confirmed, these findings should help us reduce violence in institutions, reduce the sizable cost of extended sentences, and suggest ways that susceptible individuals can reduce their risk of incarceration in the first place.

Other researchers report that vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and carbohydrates all measurably affect mood in typical individuals. These studies might explain how nutrients could reduce the threshold for violence in those with violent tendencies. If nutrition helps, its use can be in addition to any other methods that help; no approach should diminish efforts to find others.

Adrian Raine of the University of Southern California used PET scans to measure the burning of glucose “fuel” in the brains of 22 murderers and 22 control subjects. He found large metabolic deficits in the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes of the murderers. It is known that frontal lobe injury causes impulsiveness, immaturity, lack of tact, and poor social judgment. Although the murderers had no known brain injury, their biochemistry faltered in this important region. If we can find out why, it may help us overcome the deficits, or failing that, help us protect society from those have them.