mass murder and the amygdala -- 6/6/18

Today's selection -- from Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky. Mass murderer Charles Whitman and the amygdala:

"The amygdala is the archetypal limbic structure, sitting under the cortex in the temporal lobe. It is central to mediating aggression, along with other behaviors that tell us tons about aggression.

"The evidence for the amygdala's role in aggression is extensive, based on research approaches that will become familiar.

"First there's the correlative 'recording' approach. Stick recording elec­trodes into numerous species' amygdalae and see when neurons there have action potentials; this turns out to be when the animal is being ag­gressive.In a related approach, determine which brain regions consume extra oxygen or glucose, or synthesize certain activity-related proteins, during aggression -- the amygdala tops the list.

Location of the amygdalae in the human brain

"Moving beyond mere correlation, if you lesion the amygdala in an an­imal, rates of aggression decline. The same occurs transiently when you temporarily silence the amygdala by injecting Novocain into it. Con­versely, implanting electrodes that stimulate neurons there, or spritzing in excitatory neurotransmitters (stay tuned), triggers aggression.

"Show human subjects pictures that provoke anger, and the amygdala activates (as shown with neuroimaging). Sticking an electrode in some­one's amygdala and stimulating it (as is done before certain types of neu­rosurgery) produces rage.

"The most convincing data concern rare humans with damage restricted to the amygdala, either due to a type of encephalitis or a congenital disor­der called Urbach-Wiethe disease, or where the amygdala was surgically destroyed to control severe, drug-resistant seizures originating there. Such individuals are impaired in detecting angry facial expressions (while being fine at recognizing other emotional states -- stay tuned).

"And what does amygdala damage do to aggressive behavior? This was studied in humans where amygdalotomies were done not to control sei­zures but to control aggression. Such psychosurgery provoked fiery con­troversy in the 1970s. And I don't mean scientists not saying hello to each other at conferences. I mean a major public shit storm.

"The issue raised bioethical lightning rods: What counted as patholog­ical aggression? Who decided? What other interventions had been tried unsuccessfully? Were some types of hyperaggressive individuals more likely to go under the knife than others? What constituted a cure?

"Most of these cases concerned rare epileptics where seizure onset was associated with uncontrollable aggression, and where the goal was to contain that behavior (these papers had titles such as 'Clinical and phys­iological effects of stereotaxic bilateral amygdalotomy for intractable ag­gression'). The fecal hurricane concerned the involuntary lopping out of the amygdala in people without epilepsy but with a history of severe ag­gression. Well, doing this could be profoundly helpful. Or Orwellian. This is a long, dark story and I will save it for another time.

"Did destruction of the human amygdala lessen aggression? Pretty clearly so, when violence was a reflexive, inchoate outburst preceding a seizure. But with surgery done solely to control behavior, the answer is, er, maybe -- the heterogeneity of patients and surgical approaches, the lack of modern neuroimaging to pinpoint exactly which parts of the amyg­dala were destroyed in each individual, and the imprecision in the behav­ioral data (with papers reporting from 33 to 100 percent 'success' rates) make things inconclusive. The procedure has almost entirely fallen out of practice.

"The amygdala/aggression link pops up in two notorious cases of vio­lence. The first concerns Ulrike Meinhof, a founder in 1968 of the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang), a terrorist group responsi­ble for bombings and bank robberies in West Germany. Meinhof had a conventional earlier life as a journalist before becoming violently radical­ized. During her 1976 murder trial, she was found hanged in her jail cell (suicide or murder? still unclear). In 1962 Meinhof had had a benign brain tumor surgically removed; the 1976 autopsy showed that remnants of the tumor and surgical scar tissue impinged on her amygdala.

"A second case concerns Charles Whitman, the 1966 'Texas Tower' sniper who, after killing his wife and mother, opened fire atop a tower at the University of Texas in Austin, killing sixteen and wounding thirty­-two, one of the first school massacres. Whitman was literally an Eagle Scout and childhood choirboy, a happily married engineering major with an IQ in the 99th percentile. In the prior year he had seen doctors, com­plaining of severe headaches and violent impulses (e.g., to shoot people from the campus tower). He left notes by the bodies of his wife and his mother, proclaiming love and puzzlement at his actions: 'I cannot ratio­naly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for [killing her],' and 'let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.' His suicide note requested an autopsy of his brain, and that any money he had be given to a mental health foundation. The autopsy proved his intuition correct -- Whitman had a glioblastoma tumor pressing on his amygdala. Did Whitman's tumor 'cause' his violence? Probably not in a strict 'amygdaloid tumor = murderer' sense, as he had risk factors that inter­acted with his neurological issues. Whitman grew up being beaten by his father and watching his mother and siblings experience the same. This choirboy Eagle Scout had repeatedly physically abused his wife and had been court-martialed as a Marine for physically threatening another sol­dier. And, perhaps indicative of a thread running through the family, his brother was murdered at age twenty-four during a bar fight."



Robert M. Sapolsky


Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst


Penguin Books


Copyright 2017 by Robert M. Sapolsky


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