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Could Minor Physical Defects Lead to Violent Behavior in Teens?

From the WebMD Archives

June 21, 2000 -- Could the potential for violent behavior be programmed into a person from birth? And could it be possible to screen children for violence risk factors, so as to begin early interventions to prevent them from becoming violent in the first place? Those are among the questions raised by a new study from Canada.

Louise Arsenault, PhD, a University of Montreal researcher, says that she and her colleagues may have been able to show that problems during development of babies in the womb may lead to both minor physical defects and brain damage. This brain damage is believed to increase the risk for violent behavior.

But one expert who spoke to WebMD is not sure these findings have any value right now for use in the general community.

Arsenault looked at a large population of adolescent boys in Montreal, who had been followed since kindergarten. She and fellow researchers assessed the boys' delinquent and violent tendencies in their adolescent years by using questionnaires and police crime reports. They also looked at minor physical defects in these boys. Arsenault is now a visiting researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

She looked at the boys' mouths, ears, eyes, heads, hands, and feet. Very minor physical abnormalities were noted, such as a high, pointed palate; a furrowed tongue; asymmetrical ears; low-set ears; electric, fine hair; a single crease in the palm; and a big gap between the toes.

The researchers found that out of a group of 170 teen boys, those who exhibited violent delinquent behaviors tended to have more physical defects than those who were not violent -- especially abnormalities of the mouth. This could suggest that abnormalities of the mouth are closely associated with brain defects that lead to the higher risk of violence.

"I think that this paper would be useful with doctors, nurses, [and] teachers who could identify the kids at risk at a very early age," Arsenault tells WebMD. She also says that if these abnormalities are associated with fetal development, perhaps better maternal care might have an impact. But her research does not recommend any specific programs.

Charlotte Hobbs, MD, PhD, believes this may be a giant leap to make from these still-speculative findings. Hobbs, co-director of the Arkansas Center for Birth Defects, Research, and Prevention at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, says Arsenault's findings provide more questions than answers.

She cautions against taking the findings as anything but an interesting theory. "To me it's a scary thing if we start thinking violent behavior in youth is something" people are born with, she tells WebMD. Before the idea is accepted, she says, she would like to see more medical studies that say the same thing.

Screening for these abnormalities could lead to a mislabeling of children early on as potentially violent, when in reality they simply have a common defect that has no clear effect on their behavior, present or future. "There's potential harm of [the study's] message being misinterpreted," she says.

Arsenault agrees that more studies are needed. She reports in her paper that these abnormalities do not occur in isolation. They could affect the children's behavior in other, less direct ways. That's especially true for abnormalities of the face, which could affect communication, emotional expression, and feeding and digestion, all of which could add to the problems these children may face and increase the possibility of aggressive behavior associated with frustration.

"People who deal with violence and behavior problems will tell you that you need to start looking at it from infancy," Hobbs says. Prevention of these behavior problems, of course, is key, and research has shown intervention programs to be effective if started very early.

Arsenault's research was reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers found that minor physical defects are associated with an increased risk of violence.
  • In the study group of nearly 200 teen boys, those who had violent behaviors had more physical abnormalities, on average, than nonviolent teens.
  • An observer says more study is needed and people should be careful in interpreting this research; labeling children as potentially violent according to how they look could be inaccurate and do more harm than good.