• Mayuri Vaish

The role of the prefrontal cortex as indication of pathological behavior

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is not necessarily a “strong” indicator of pathological, but yes, there have been several studies linking underdeveloped frontal lobes to crime/antisocial attitudes. .


One of the most famous studies is that conducted by Raine et al. (1999)[1], who used PET scanning to compare 41 NGRI (Non Guilty by reason of insanity) murderers to 41 age-matched controls. He saw not only reduced glucose metabolism in the prefrontal cortex, but also abnormal activity in other regions e.g. the corpus callosum, amygdala, and thalamus.

Similarly, Koenigs (2014)[2]reviewed the role of the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex) in psychopathy, which is an early indicator for crime. Early evidence dates back to the 1800s, in the famous case study of a man named Phineas Gage, who had a rod shot through his PFC - leading to become highly impetuous and disrespectful. Further studies have shown the role of the PFC in poor moral judgement[3], where patients with damage to the PFC felt that violence and murder was permissible relative to controls[4]. Volkow (1995) found that a majority of violent psychiatric patients had poor glucose metabolism in the PFC[5]. Yang (2009) found that antisocial individuals had lower gray matter in the PFC[6]. Boccardi (2011) also found smaller PFC structures and reduced tissue in violent offenders versus age-matched controls[7]. fMRI studies also show reduced connectivity between the PFC and other brain regions[8]. I could go on, but hopefully I have conveyed my point - that the PFC has been linked, in many studies, to psychopathic tendencies.

HOWEVER, that is not to say that there is a direct, one-to-one causal relationship between the PFC and criminal behavior.


One classic example is teenagers. By nature, their brain is developing, and thus so is their PFC. Thus, teenagers often make rash, impulsive or emotional decisions, but hardly any of them ever turn to criminal activity. Many studies have found other brain regions involved as well, particularly the amygdala[9]and the temporal lobe[10]. Additionally, other factors could include genes (such as the MAO-A gene known to raise the risk of criminal behavior)[11], and socio-economic factors/upbringing environment is also highly important in suggesting future criminal activity[12].

One such example is of the scientist James Fallon. A UC Irvine neuroscientist, Fallon has been exploring the minds of psychopaths for years; And surprisingly, he found almost the exact same genetic makeup and brain structures as those of criminals[13]. The fact that he isn’t a killer by now clearly indicates the role of one’s social environment as a precursor for behavior.

James Fallon delivering a Ted Talk on 'Exploring the Mind of a Killer'

So yes, an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is an indicator for possible future activity, but by no means is it a prescription for future behavior. How one behaves is up to their environment, and awareness of their actions. It simply means that one may have to take extra precaution incase they notice themselves developing impulsive tendencies.

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