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5/14/13

The Axe Murderess's DNA Lives On

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Consider this. You are a neuroscientist with a special interest in the brains of psychopaths. Knowing your interest, your mother suggests you check your own family tree for skeletons in the closet. Some of your ancestors were strange indeed, she says. You do that and discover that, among other psychos, Lizzy Borden, the Axe Murderess, is in your family tree.  You check DNA in your immediate family and are astonished at what you find.

You know Lizzy Borden killed her parents in the infamous Fall River Massacres. You also know the psychopathic condition can be passed down in DNA, you analyze the brain scans of your family members to determine if anybody inherited the factor.

Finally, suppose the scans reveal that you are the one with a genetic predisposition.You begin to wonder how you were saved from committing violent acts.

If your name is James Fallon that is precisely what you discover and examine.

I find his case interesting in that it provides evidence that upbringing plays a role in facilitating or suppressing inherited anti-social traits. Read on.

"The criminal brain has always held a fascination for James Fallon. For nearly 20 years, the neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine has studied the brains of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how a killer's brain differs from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his mother at a family barbecue.

"I said, 'Jim, why don't you find out about your father's relatives?' " Jenny Fallon recalled. "I think there were some cuckoos back there."

Fallon investigated.

"There's a whole lineage of very violent people — killers," he says.

One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. "Cousin Lizzy," as Fallon wryly calls her, was accused (and controversially acquitted) of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.

A little spooked by his ancestry, Fallon set out to see whether anyone in his family possesses the brain of a serial killer." More

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