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LAW & ORDER

Life of Crime Begins at Three for Some Children

At the age of three, most children will want to grow up to be a train driver, footballer or princess.

But according to scientists, some toddlers are already destined for a life of crime.

Disturbing evidence has emerged that the psychological seeds of a criminal career can be seen before they even reach nursery school.

Abnormalities in the parts of the brain that handle emotions, guilt and fear are far more common in criminals than in law-abiding members of society.

It is unclear whether these abnormalities are genetic, the result of upbringing or both – but they can be measured at a surprisingly tender age.

The finding means youngsters could potentially be screened to see if they are at risk – and then ‘treated’ to prevent criminal behaviour.

Professor Adrian Raine, a former Home Office criminologist, agreed predictive scans were many years off. But the father-of-two added: ‘If you told me my son had an 80 per cent chance of being a psychopath, but that he could be treated for it, I would have him treated. But it has to be a decision made by individuals, not by scientists.’

Psychologists have identified key personality traits in childhood which are linked to poor behaviour later in life.

Seven-year-olds with unemotional and ‘callous’ traits were much more likely to be involved in anti-social behaviour at the age of 12, a study by Dr Nathalie Fontaine, a criminal justice expert, found.

Other signs include not having at least one good friend, being unkind to other children and not being helpful if someone is hurt.

The experts stress that not all youngsters with the traits turn into criminals – and not all criminals had the traits as children, but that they increase the risk of a life of crime.

He found that murderers who kill in the heat of the moment are more likely to have a poorly functioning prefrontal cortex – which deals with reasoning and helps suppress base instincts.

Psychopaths who lack remorse, guilt or empathy tend to have smaller amygdalas – a region that handles all three emotions.

The fear response of three-year-olds was also tested by playing them a neutral sound followed by an unpleasant one, until the children learned the nasty sound always followed the neutral tone.

For most, the sound of the first tone was enough to raise their pulse rates and start a sweat. But a few showed no ‘anticipatory fear’ – a possible symptom of an abnormal amygdala.

The prospect of scans suggests a serial killer such as Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe could be spotted and treated as a child –  but it also poses dilemmas.

‘It raises the question to what extent should we develop new biological interventions to reduce crime.’