BIOCHEMISTRY AND BEHAVIOR
by William J. Walsh, PhD in chemical engineering from Iowa State University; researcher, group leader, and section head at Argonne National Laboratory for over 20 years; holder of six patents and author of approximately 175 articles and technical reports; volunteer in Illinois prisons for almost 20 years; founder in 1974 of the Prisoner Assistance Project; president of the Health Research Institute; co-founder in1989 of the Carl Pfeiffer Treatment Center. In 1981, the United Way named him "Prison Volunteer of the Year" for metropolitan Chicago.
The societal problems of delinquency, crime, and violence have steadily worsened throughout our nation's history. Most of us carefully lock our doors at night for a very good reason: The United States of America leads the world in per capita rates of murder, assault, rape, and most other violent crimes.
We spend billions of dollars each year on law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We have tripled our prison population in the last 15 years, and more than one million Americans are now incarcerated. In most states, funds badly needed for education and health care are diverted to prison construction projects. Despite this great public sacrifice, progress seems to occur at glacial speed (inches per century). In fact, violent crime rates are higher today than 15 years ago. Our nation's report card for this subject should read "A for effort, F for accomplishment."
The basic problem is two-fold. First , we do not understand why some children become violent criminals and others do not. Second, we do not know how to reform or rehabilitate the former once they start breaking the law.
Sometimes the greatest barrier to scientific progress is not lack of knowledge, but prevailing beliefs that are not true. Astronomy was stalled for centuries by the conviction that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo and Copernicus were ridiculed and persecuted for correcting this error. Geography and geology were delayed for centuries by the belief that the world was flat. Chemistry was hindered by the phlogiston theory, in which a nonexistent element was erroneously believed to enable burning. Physics was delayed for decades by the "plum pudding" theory of atomic structure. In each of these cases, progress virtually stopped because of a consensus belief in something that was not true.
We can now add criminology to the list of sciences stalled by a false belief. In this case, the error is a misguided conviction that violent criminals are created by flawed life circumstances such as poverty, child abuse, bad parenting, and broken homes. This is a nice theory, but time is proving it to be wrong. Unfortunately, most therapists and behavioral researchers devoutly believe in this concept and therefore provide the wrong treatments or follow fruitless lines of research. Until this error is corrected, behavior-disordered children will continue to grow up to be criminals and our nation's horrific rate of crime and violence will persist.
In nearly 20 years of volunteer work in prisons and ex-offender programs, I was closely associated with hundreds of persons who had committed violent crimes. Most of them had a history of assaultive behavior dating back to early childhood. There were many cases of violent criminals who had wonderful parents and siblings who were productive law-abiding citizens. (Richard Speck is a good example.) Their families told me that these future criminals seemed "different" from the day they were born and had resisted all attempts by the family to love and nurture them. The families spoke of children who started to lie as soon as they learned to talk, became assaultive by age 3, tortured family pets, and were completely oppositional and disobedient by age 4. Many of the criminals had had counseling and psychotherapy before kindergarten, drug medications by age 6, hospitalization by age 9, and incarceration by age 12. The families reported that physical punishment was completely ineffective, as was behavior modification. I met parents who believed that their children were possessed and had tried exorcism. I learned that the parent of a criminal is often a parent with a broken heart.
Many of my criminal associates were very intelligent and had searched for the reasons why their lives had turned out so badly. A habitual sociopath once told me over breakfast that he had absolutely no caring impulse or feeling for other human beings. He pointed to a little girl crossing a Chicago street and said that if she were hit by a bus and crushed, he would feel nothing and would just keep on eating his scrambled eggs. He expressed his desire to love his parents and to fall in love with a woman, but said that was impossible--because he just "felt nothing." He had been like that his entire life. A close friend of mine (once a black gang leader) told me that he hoped that science would someday find out what had transformed him from a little baby into a monster. In some ways, the criminals appeared to have a better understanding of their problem than the criminologists who had spent a lifetime studying them. It seems highly significant to me that the most common tattoo I saw in Stateville prison was "born to raise hell."
The reality is that most children with terrible behavior were born with chemical imbalances that predispose them to this conduct. Flawed life circumstances can aggravate this condition, but with many the underlying cause is bad chemistry. If imbalances are mild, terrific parenting and counseling may save the day. However, if an imbalance is severe, behavior problems cannot be loved away or overcome with competent parenting. The imbalance itself must be addressed.
The Carl Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Naperville, Illinois, is dedicated to helping families effectively cope with behavior disorders in their children. Our focus is on biochemical treatment aimed at the very chemical imbalances that are usually at the root of a behavior problem. The key lies in identification of the specific biochemical abnormality present.
Thousands of behavior-disordered children have been studied at the Center. The most common imbalances are metal-metabolism disorders, toxic overloads, a disorder of hemoglobin synthesis, nutrient malabsorption, and an overload or deficiency of histamine. Treatments consist of specific vitamins, minerals, and amino acids targeted at balancing body chemistry. This is a fairly complex medical procedure that requires a partnership of biochemists and medical doctors.
Recently at our clinic, I met a dedicated, competent, loving mother who had adopted an infant abandoned at birth. Her four-year-old son is completely oppositional and defiant, has tortured and killed two family pets, and is beginning to harm other children in the neighborhood. Recently she found him searching through the dishwasher. He said he was looking for a knife so he could kill his baby sister. The mother has three older adopted children, who are very well behaved and are good students. Two years of counseling, behavior modification, and drug medications have not helped. His present medication is thorazine and his psychiatrist now recommends long-term residential care. Our laboratory testing revealed this child to have severe imbalances and his new drug-free treatment will begin next week. We expect that his behavior will become quite normal within three months.
Children with mild temper tantrums often have the same chemical imbalances as those with assaultive rages. However, chemical imbalances are usually much less intense for mild behavior disorders. Our success rates, based on longitudinal progress reports from thousands of parents, appear to be very high for both groups . We plan to conduct double-blind studies in the near future to better define treatment effectiveness rates. So far we have found that treatment success rates are highest for young children, with a sharp decline in efficacy during teenage years. We believe that drugs, alcohol, and a continually worsening self-image are responsible for this effect. Our clinic continues to grow rapidly and our waiting list exceeds two thousand applicants from throughout the USA.
If present crime rates persist, more than a million American children (ages 12 and younger) alive today will eventually wind up in prison. This problem will not be solved by getting tough with criminals or building more prisons. The only hope lies in early identification of severe behavior disorders, followed by effective treatment.
Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter 1994, pages 3-4.