In a scenario that seems ripped from the pages of a “CSI” script, geneticist sleuths have been analyzing the blood of Newtown mass murderer Adam Lanza to see what secrets it may reveal in his DNA. Did he carry any gene mutations that predisposed him to violence?
A spokeswoman for the University of Connecticut Health Center told CNN on Thursday that the geneticists were asked to join the investigation by the state medical examiner’s office and weren’t looking for any specific genetic marker in particular but a complete analysis of his DNA. Results are expected at the end of January.
I was actually surprised to hear about this analysis and wondered if the science was really there to pinpoint mental illnesses that might have predisposed Lanza to violence. For example, certain gene mutations have been linked to schizophrenia, a condition that Tucson shooter Jared Loughner was found to have; he was forced to take anti-psychotic drugs during his sentencing hearings last month.
Is it actually possible to posthumously pinpoint any psychiatric conditions that Lanza may have had by examining his DNA?
“No, I don’t think the science is there yet,” said Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and co-founder of Harvard Medical School’s program in psychiatry and the law. Studies that have made links between certain gene mutations and violence have been scant and usually poorly conducted with results that can’t be verified by other researchers, he said.
“These investigators don’t even know what they’re looking for, and they’re going on a fishing expedition, casting a wide net,” Bursztajn added, “who knows what sorts of gene mutations will be trapped in this net?”
There are certain risk factors that could predispose someone to violent acts—and, no, having a diagnosis of autism (which Lanza purportedly had) isn’t one of them. Focusing on a genetic analysis could detract from digging deeper into risk factors for violence that Lanza may have been exhibiting prior to his shooting rampage.
These include hallucinations, delusions, substance abuse problems, or have sociopathic tendencies where a person may feel pleasure from someone else’s pain.
“We’re alway looking to see where murderers fall on the mad spectrum,” said Bursztajn. While some may have full-blown psychiatric conditions that make them unable to distinguish between right and wrong, others, he added, may simply be “bad people” who are looking to do bad things.
Often a downward spiral starts with depression—sometimes precipitated by a trauma or abuse—and a sense of isolation, but plenty of people experience those things and never commit violent acts. “It’s when depression becomes psychosis with delusions and hallucinations that we begin to worry,” Bursztajn said.
But there’s no science to suggest that any of these details could be discovered in an analysis of Lanza’s DNA. “I think there are a lot of false promises and false hopes raised in this kind of analysis,” Bursztajn said, “when investigators would be better served by conducting interviews with those who knew the killer best.”