Musings of a phenomenologist

Science, psychiatry and random musings

The biology of crime

Posted by soveda on October 7, 2008

Before I start I have to thank jdc, Ben Goldacre’s mini blog on the Badscience.net site and Cynical OT from the Bad Science forum for pointing this article out to me.

I’m starting to think I should add “bad media” to my byline…

The link in the mini blog is to the ITV news report on a study examining the cortisol response of the body to stress in adolescent males with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (F91.3). The report has been described as flaky, unreferenced, reductionist and dire. All of that is true, and then some, my favourite part of the report is this:

“The next step for those looking into this will be to design treatments for the condition. To do that they will have to find what triggers the lack of cortisol production in the body”

Now that looks the wrong way round to me, surely the next step is to see whether the hypothesis holds true? To be honest this report is so beyond sensible it reminds me of Brass eye.

The Daily Mail report is brief but just as reductionist, at least it has a quote from one of the researchers. Whether that quote is in context is another question entirely. The fusing of “anxiety” and “provoking” to create a single word shows the care and interest placed in the story. (Oh dear I’m getting picky again aren’t I)

And now the BBC, this starts off quite well by reporting a possible link but then falls into the same trap of saying:

The Biological Psychiatry study suggests some bad behaviour may be a form of mental illness linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain

So all three reports are describing bad behavour as a “mental illness’ with a reductionist physical cause. No mention of Antisocial Behaviour Orders in the main body of the reports either.

Shall we look a the actual data? Oh go on you know you want to really.

Who were the subjects of the study? There was a control group with no psychiatric diagnosis and another group of “index cases” who had a diagnosis of conduct disorder. So we are comparing two groups on the basis of a diagnosis, when the two groups are compared, more of those with conduct disorder have a blunted cortisol response to stress which is mirrored by a smaller increase in heart rate when compared to those with no diagnosis.

Interestingly the subjective mood rating showed no significant difference between groups.

Why is all this interesting? Well, the reports quote Dr Fairchild as saying:

If we can figure out precisely what underlies an inability to show a normal stress response we may be able to design new treatments for severe behaviour problems.

We may also be able to create targeted interventions for those at higher risk.

This seems to have been interpreted as “tablets” by the press. Some current treatments for conduct disorder and ODD have aspects of focusing on the physical sensations associated with stressful event (heartrate, breathing etc) and if some individuals do not have those physiological changes it rather hampers the treatment modality. The study authors also state in their discussion that the hyporeactivity during stress could have different aetiologies, including habituation secondary to risk taking behaviours.

So precursor or symptom? We don’t know from this study. But that doesn’t make headlines whereas simplistic physical reductionism does.

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3 Responses to “The biology of crime”

  1. jdc325 said

    “I’m starting to think I should add “bad media” to my byline…”
    Well the media’s reporting of mental health issues is generally appalling – you should have plenty of material. Re this particular study, I think OT put it nicely: Crap reporting, legitimate research.

  2. soveda said

    Quite, but that title was taken!

  3. Gordon said

    I’m equally concerned about ‘oppositional defiant disorder’. Isn’t that normal behaviour for teenagers? Whoever came up with this disorder must have taken a leaf out of the Soviet book: ‘sluggishly progressing schizophrenia’ characterised by ‘opposition to authority’.

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