Cases like that of Charles Whitman, who murdered 16 people after growth of a brain tumor, have sparked debate about why some brain lesions, but not others, might lead to criminal behavior. Here we systematically characterize such lesions and compare them with lesions that cause other symptoms. We find that lesions in multiple different brain areas are associated with criminal behavior. However, these lesions all fall within a unique functionally connected brain network involved in moral decision making. Furthermore, connectivity to competing brain networks predicts the abnormal moral decisions observed in these patients. These results provide insight into why some brain lesions, but not others, might predispose to criminal behavior, with potential neuroscience, medical, and legal implications.
Following brain lesions, previously normal patients sometimes exhibit criminal behavior. Although rare, these cases can lend unique insight into the neurobiological substrate of criminality. Here we present a systematic mapping of lesions with known temporal association to criminal behavior, identifying 17 lesion cases. The lesion sites were spatially heterogeneous, including the medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and different locations within the bilateral temporal lobes. No single brain region was damaged in all cases. Because lesion-induced symptoms can come from sites connected to the lesion location and not just the lesion location itself, we also identified brain regions functionally connected to each lesion location. This technique, termed lesion network mapping, has recently identified regions involved in symptom generation across a variety of lesion-induced disorders. All lesions were functionally connected to the same network of brain regions. This criminality-associated connectivity pattern was unique compared with lesions causing four other neuropsychiatric syndromes. This network includes regions involved in morality, value-based decision making, and theory of mind, but not regions involved in cognitive control or empathy. Finally, we replicated our results in a separate cohort of 23 cases in which a temporal relationship between brain lesions and criminal behavior was implied but not definitive. Our results suggest that lesions in criminals occur in different brain locations but localize to a unique resting state network, providing insight into the neurobiology of criminal behavior.