Vol. 2, No. 1 , 1996, Page 1&2&5


Research indicates that many children exhibit early warning signs of delinquent or criminal behavior -- signs that some day may allow educators and physicians to offer more effective prevention programs targeting biologically at-risk children before they become criminals. Among recent findings:

A video experiment

Mona El-Sheikh and colleagues filmed the reactions of 34 preschool children (19 boys and 15 girls) to videotapes of angry interactions between adults. After watching a first videotape, the children were told they could choose whether a second videotaped interaction would be mildly or intensely angry. (In reality, the children were shown a pre-selected second tape.)

The researchers measured the children's heart rate and skin conductance as they watched the videos. "Boys with externalizing behavior problems [overactivity, defiance, noncompliance, and aggression] more often chose to watch intense anger and had lower baseline heart rates and higher skin conductance responses" than boys without such behavior problems, they report. No significant differences in video selection were seen among girls, but higher levels of externalizing behavior problems in girls were associated with lower baseline heart rates.

The heart rate data for male subjects, the researchers say, are consistent with the theory that "sensation seeking" males have lower baseline heart rates than males who prefer low levels of stimulation. "Boys who had lower baseline heart rates in the present study," they say, "might have sought a higher level of stimulation (intense anger) to increase arousal to an optimal level, while those with higher baseline heart rates might have chosen a lower level of stimulation (mild anger) to avoid further arousal."

El-Sheikh et al. note that "sensation seeking in adult males has consistently been linked to adult antisocial behavior, and children with conduct disordered behavior have been found to score higher on measures of sensation seeking." (See related article, Crime Times, Vol. 2, No. 1, Page 6.)

The researchers say that subjects with behavior problems had higher skin conductance responses -- a finding which differs from several other research reports. But they cite research suggesting that skin conductance response patterns are reversed in preschoolers.

In related research, Adrian Raine and colleagues studied the heart rates and skin conductance levels of 101 15-year-old male school children in the late 1970s, and later ran computer searches to see which of these subjects had been found guilty of crimes in adulthood. The researchers found that 15-year-olds who later committed crimes had exhibited lower resting heart rates and skin conductance activity, and more slow- frequency EEG activity, than those with no criminal records in adulthood. (See Crime Times, Vol. 1, No. 1/2, Page 6), for a more extensive report on this study.)

In November, Raine et al. reported new data from this same study. This time, the researchers compared three groups of subjects from their original group of 15-year-olds (now age 29). One group consisted of 17 subjects labeled as "antisocial" in adolescence, who had not committed criminal offenses as adults; one group consisted of 17 "antisocial" teens who did later commit crimes; and a control group consisted of 17 non-antisocial teens who did not commit crimes in adulthood.

Raine and colleagues found that the 17 "antisocial" teens who had not committed criminal acts "had significantly higher electrodermal and cardiovascular arousal and higher electrodermal orienting than the criminal group." Their findings, they say, indicate that "individuals predisposed to adult crime by virtue of showing antisocial behavior in adolescence may be protected from committing crime by high levels of autonomic arousal and orienting."

Chemical clues

Research strongly suggests that substance abuse and antisocial behavior tend to run in families, and that both behavior problems are associated with biochemical abnormalities. To explore these findings further, Stewart Gabel and colleagues recently studied 65 male youth, aged six through 15, admitted to a residential center for treatment of behavioral disorders. The researchers compared children with antisocial or substance-abusing fathers to children whose fathers did not exhibit antisocial behavior or substance abuse.

Blood samples were taken from each subject, to determine levels of homovanillic acid (HVA), a metabolite of dopamine, and dopamine-beta-hydroxylase (DBH), an enzyme that facilitates the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine. "The findings indicated," the researchers say, "that youth of substance-abusing fathers had significantly greater levels of HVA than youth of nonsubstance-abusing fathers," and that "younger boys of antisocial fathers had significantly lower DBH activity than comparably aged youth of nonantisocial fathers."

"The results," Gabel et al. say, "suggest that common generational links in substance abuse and antisocial behavior in males may be associated with detectable biological parameters in susceptible youth."

Impulsive preschoolers

Richard Tremblay and colleagues recently investigated the roots of antisocial behavior by studying a large group of boys from kindergarten through age 13. Behavioral characteristics including impulsivity, anxiety, and reward dependence were analyzed.

"The impulsivity dimension was the best predictor of the early onset of stable, highly delinquent behavior," Tremblay et al. report. "Anxiety and reward dependence made significant but weaker contributions." These findings, they say, are consistent with research by C. Robert Cloninger (See related article, See Crime Times, Vol. 2, No. 1, Page 6) suggesting that "boys who are high in impulsivity, low in anxiety, and low in reward dependence would be more at risk for delinquent involvement."

Tremblay and colleagues note that "the measure of impulsivity in this study was based on items that are generally used to assess hyperactivity," and that "the boys most at risk for antisocial behavior were thus rated overactive in kindergarten." These results, Tremblay et al. say, "corroborate a number of studies that have shown that hyperactivity increases the risk of later antisocial behavior."

The researchers say their findings suggest that "[delinquency] preventive efforts should target preschool children with at-risk behavior profiles."

Is early puberty a risk factor?

Another study, by Donald Orr and Gary Ingersoll, suggests that early puberty and low levels of "cognitive complexity" put children at risk for behavioral problems likely to lead to delinquency.

Orr and Ingersoll surveyed eighth and ninth grade students attending two junior high schools in 1987 and 1989. The children completed questionnaires about alcohol and drug use, sexual activity, minor delinquency, and suicide attempts. The researchers administered tests measuring the students' social and psychological maturity, and determined the ages at which the children had entered puberty.

"Our data indicated," they say, "that levels of cognitive complexity and the age of onset of puberty relative to peers were independently associated with participation in behaviors that are potentially health endangering. The effects were linear and additive."

(Previous research, they note, suggests that differences in dangerous behaviors between early-puberty and late-puberty girls tend to disappear as the late-puberty children "catch up" physically.)

Orr and Ingersoll conclude that "pediatricians should consider adolescents at lower levels of cognitive complexity (concrete thinking) and those who begin puberty earlier at greater risk for participation in health risk behaviors," including drug use, promiscuous sex, and delinquency.


"Individual differences in preschoolers' physiological and verbal responses to videotaped angry interactions," Mona El-Sheikh, Mary Ballard, and E. Mark Cummings, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 3, June 1994.


"High autonomic arousal and electrodermal orienting at age 15 years as protective factors against criminal behavior at age 29 years," Adrian Raine, Peter Venables, and Mark Williams, American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152, No. 11, November 1995. Address: Adrian Raine, Department of Psychology, S.G.M. Building, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1061.


"Homovanillic acid and dopamine-beta-hydroxylase in male youth: relationships with paternal substance abuse and antisocial behavior," Stewart Gabel, John Stadler, Janet Bjor, Richard Shindledecker, and Charles L. Bowden, American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Vol. 21, No. 3, August 1995.


"Predicting early onset of male antisocial behavior from preschool behavior," Richard E. Tremblay, Robert O. Pihl, Frank Vitaro, and Patricia L. Dobkin, Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 51, September 1994. Address: Richard Tremblay, Research Unit on Children's Psycho-Social Maladjustment, University of Montreal, 750 E. Gouin Blvd., Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2C 1A6.


"The contribution of level of cognitive complexity and pubertal timing to behavioral risk in young adolescents," Donald P. Orr and Gary M. Ingersoll, Pediatrics, Vol. 95, No.4, April 1995.

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