Vol. 2, No. 4 , 1996, Page 6


Harvard psychiatrist Anneliese Pontius believes that some "loners" who commit senseless acts of violence are suffering from a seizure disorder she has dubbed "limbic psychotic trigger reaction."

Pontius, who has examined hundreds of violent criminals, has documented the cases of 17 individuals she believes suffer from the syndrome. These individuals (13 murderers, three arsonists, and a bank robber) are characterized, she says, by the following pattern:

--None had histories of violent or criminal behavior.

--All committed motiveless, unplanned, out-of-character crimes, generally against strangers, and appeared "flat" and emotionless while committing the crimes.

--Immediately prior to committing their crimes, each subject experienced a profound sense of puzzlement, followed by hallucinations associated with past events. Some experienced delusions of grandeur.

--While committing their crimes, subjects experienced nausea, vertigo, "ice cold" sensations, profuse sweating, incontinence, or other visceral reactions.

--All subjects were disoriented for several hours following their crimes.

--All confessed openly to their crimes, and were distraught and bewildered by what they had done.

Pontius notes that this pattern is consistent with seizures, which often are preceded by "auras," frequently cause irrational behavior and loss of normal bodily functions, and are generally followed by a sense of disorientation. She suggests that her subjects committed crimes while experiencing seizures of the limbic system, a brain region associated with memory and emotion.

Although a number of her subjects had abnormal EEGs suggestive of seizures, and nearly half had experienced significant head injuries-a strong risk factor for seizures-Pontius suggests that another mechanism, known as "kindling," is involved. Kindling, a phenomenon well documented in rats, mice, rabbits, dogs, cats, and primates, occurs when animals are exposed repeatedly and intermittently to mild, harmless stimuli such as low-level electric shock, isolation, or small doses of drugs. Animals at first show no response to the stimuli, but after a short period they begin having small seizures, and eventually they develop generalized convulsions.

Because her subjects were "loners," Pontius believes they may have brooded continually over mild traumas or slights, rather than talking them over with friends or family, and that this brooding eventually "kindled" seizures when subjects were exposed to people or objects that triggered their obsessive memories.

While Pontius's theory is provocative, other researchers suggest that her subjects' violent outbursts stemmed not from "kindling," but from overt brain damage. Paul MacLean, of the National Institute of Mental Health, says, "I think there must be lesions of some kind in most of Pontius's cases; we just haven't seen them yet."

Pontius is not the first researcher to link a specific criminal behavior pattern to seizure activity. V. H. Mark and F. R. Ervin have identified a behavior pattern they call "dyscontrol syndrome," consisting of assaultiveness, violent acts following even light drinking, impulsive sexual behavior, and multiple traffic violations. Individuals with this behavior pattern, the researchers say, typically have histories of epileptic-like episodes, abnormal EEGs, and periods of unconsciousness following head injuries or disease.


"Retroductive reasoning in a proposed subtype of partial seizures, evoked by limbic `kindling,'" Anneliese A. Pontius, Psychological Reports, Vol. 76, 1995, pp. 55-62. Address: Anneliese A. Pontius, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Fruit Street, Boston, MA 02114.


"Something snapped: new theory on sudden and inexplicable violent actions," Philip LoPiccolo, Technology Review, Vol. 99, No. 7, October 1996, pp. 52-61.

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