10.19.12

Can Science Spot a Pedophile? Research Zeroes In On Brain Abnormalities

As the Catholic Church, college football, and now the Boy Scouts reel from sex-abuse scandals, new studies suggest the urge to prey on children may come from how a brain is wired.

New research suggests that pedophiles can be identified before the mental illness turns into a crime, potentially keeping many children out of harm’s way. The analysis comes at a crucial moment, amid a wave of pedophilia cases dominating headlines, from Jerry Sandusky’s sentencing to allegations of sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Identifying pedophilia through MRIs and IQ studies may seem like quack science, but many experts say it is a mental illness and, just like clinical depression or bipolar disorder, can be treated—and maybe one day cured.

At least five studies conducted in the past two years have dealt with various abnormalities detected in pedophiles’ brains. Research has varied, from discerning irregularities in the frontal lobe to observing brain activity as pedophiles viewed images of naked children.

Pedophiles appear to have significantly less white matter—a substance that connects different parts of the brain—than nonpedophiles, according to research conducted by James Cantor, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Cantor is working with new types of MRI scans known as diffusion tensor imaging to get a better sense of what he calls “the literal crosswiring of the brain” commonly found in pedophiles.

Cantor has said that a lack of connection between separate parts of the brain could mean that pedophiles have serious trouble differentiating between sexual objects. His research has also found that pedophiles generally have lower IQs than people with sexual interest in adults, and that pedophiles are also disproportionately left-handed compared to the overall population.

One cause of pedophilia may be a biological problem that some are simply born with, Cantor says. “Whatever chain of events leads to pedophilia, the first link in that chain seems to be before birth,” he told The Daily Beast.

“We don’t have a smoking gun” to say definitively how pedophilia develops, Cantor says, but it could form from “maternal stress while the mother is still pregnant, or a combination of maternal stress or poor nutrition, or household stress during childhood. If we take out one of those ingredients, we may break the chain and understand the whole system that ends in pedophilia.”

The search for a cause has intensified in recent years, as much of the most recent research has focused on medical treatments for pedophilic urges.

Medications such as Depo-Provera—which is commonly prescribed for prostate cancer—lower testosterone and libido levels and are being tested as effective “chemical-castration” treatments, and some say cures, to pedophilia. Those who seek help are also often treated with talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy in addition to the medicinal route.

But not everyone is convinced that stopping pedophilia is as simple as taking a pill or reading an MRI.

“Whatever chain of events leads to pedophilia, the first link in that chain seems to be before birth,” Cantor told The Daily Beast.

“We’re looking for a machine that goes ‘bing,’” says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University who has done extensive research on child abuse within the Catholic Church. Instead of finding a “magic pharmaceutical that will make a certain part of the brain not light up,” Plante says, “we need a more integrated perspective if we want to keep kids safe.”

Treating pedophilia is particularly difficult, he argues, because many of the sex offenders that authorities consider pedophiles are “not pedophiles at all.” Instead of targeting children specifically, offenders will “target teenagers or they are situational generalists who target anyone they can get,” Plante says. He adds that many pedophiles and sex offenders “have more than one diagnosis. They may have substance-abuse disorders, impulse-control disorders, or personality disorders.” Finding a solution to that potentially combustible combination of diseases “is more complicated than it appears,” Plante says.

Plante says the new policies and procedures in place at institutions that have been nearly destroyed by sexual deviance—the Catholic Church and even the Boy Scouts—should serve as a model for child-focused organizations trying to prevent sexual abuse. He says pedophilia can be considered a public-health issue that requires a hybrid of biological, psychological, and social treatments rather than a criminal predilection or a disease easily treated with a pill.

He says the next step in preventing pedophilia will be to focus on kids in youth sports, public schools, and organizations where children are left unsupervised. Plante says, “kids in the Boy Scouts, Catholic Church, and in college football will be the safest kids on the planet”—but it’s children everywhere else that remain at risk.