Adam Lanza: Did His Genes Make Him Do It?

I've wondered this for a very long time.  Can your genes make you kill?

Scientists are actually mapping Adam Lanza's genes to find out, according to  Remember him?  He's hard to forget.  He's the mass murderer of 20 Connecticut first-graders and six of their teachers and administrators two years ago.  

The Web site notes that no one has ever sequenced a mass murderer’s genes. "And the plan to do so, by University of Connecticut geneticists, is being conducted quietly and far from the media spotlight. The University won't comment on its research, other than to admit that they indeed undertook it. It's not clear whether they have concluded their research, but the scientists most likely looked for mutations linked to mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, autism or Asperger’s—a diagnosis psychiatrists had given Lanza years before his rampage. Neither the researchers nor the medical examiner’s office have said what they plan to do with their findings."

But, and can you believe this, geneticists, ethicists, psychiatrists and others are fighting over whether it's right to even conduct this research.  They question, is it moral and ethical to  look for such aggression triggers in genes? And what should (or might) be done with the findings?

Here's how smartplanet sums it up: people who commit the heinous acts of someone like Lanza "involve a complex mix of various genetic and environmental factors. And searching for causal links to his crime could stigmatize people who share the same genetic markers. It may also be fruitless."

Writer Kevin Gray points out that science has a long and complex history of looking for genetic causes to violence and crime, nearly all of it fraught with ethical failure. But sophisticated DNA analysis has opened a window on to the biological triggers for disease, he notes. 

He quotes Dr. Harold Bursztajn, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who says, “Even if we were to isolate a gene that shows a proclivity for aggression, how will that tell us who is going to become a serial killer or mass murderer and who is going to become a life-saving surgeon?” says Bursztajn, who advises on colleges admissions and see all sorts of behavioral inclinations. “It would be a tragedy for genetic research to get devalued by this idea.”

Further complicating the search for a “killer gene” is the fact that our genes don’t always express themselves in the same way. Diet, environmental stressors (like poverty or a bad home life or war), exposure to toxins, early nutrition—even in utero—all affect their expression, Gray quotes Heidi Tissenbaum, a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts medical school.

Gray presents these intriguing questions: If a genetic explanation for violence is found, even one that suggests proclivity, what do you do with the people who have it? How do you identify them before they become violent? Do you screen kids before they enter school? Do you then administer gene therapies?

No one has the answers.  Let's hope we can find some before the next mass killing.


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