Neuroscience and the Colorado shooting suspect

In the coming days, weeks and months, authorities and reporters will pick through the various scraps of James Holmes’ life to try to understand why the 24-year-old opened fire on an audience watching The Dark Night Rises at a Colorado movie theater.

Certainly one curious detail is his chosen field of study. He graduated with honors in neuroscience from the University of Riverside in 2010, then enrolled in a PhD program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado.  News reports say Holmes, who had no prior criminal record, was one of six recipients of a Neuroscience Training Grant from the National Institutes of Health, which funds pre-thesis Ph.D. students in the neuroscience program at the Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.

He withdrew this spring, apparently after doing poorly on his comprehensive exams.

This gifted but obviously disturbed young man was nonetheless interested in the study of the brain and the nervous system. He seemed poised to dedicate himself to learning why human beings think, learn, feel, behave and act in the way that they do.

The study of the brain and nervous system goes back to ancient Egypt. Over the past few decades, neuroscience has evolved from a branch of biology into an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with an array of specialties  — medicine, genetics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, philosophy and psychology.

Molecular neuroscientists study how neurons develop, connect and signal one another physiologically and electrochemically. Other neuroscientists study the mechanisms of neural circuits, how they are formed and how they control reflex, the physical senses, emotional responses, learning and memory. Cognitive neuroscience delves into how neural circuitry affects our psychology and behavior.

Neuroscientists are doing some pretty amazing work and usually out of a desire to help other people.

They are doing cutting-edge research into understanding Alzheimer’s diseases, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder amongst combat veterans. They are also trying to find the causes and treatments for psychiatric diseases such as  bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia. Brain imaging techniques allow scientists to see differences in brains between healthy people and those with mental illnesses. These techniques may help map out the mysteries of why people get depressed, become manic, hear voices and see things that aren’t there. And, why people commit crimes and do evil things.

It’s no stretch to assume that James Holmes zeroed in on neuroscience in an attempt to figure out what was going on inside his own head. One of the courses he was at University of Colorado this past spring was the Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders, according to news reports.

Yes, there is a tragic irony in all this. Maybe at one point, he thought he would get his PhD and get involved in research to do some good in the world. Now, he faces multiple counts of murder, having killed 12 and injured 59 others. 

As his case moves through the legal system, and he likely tries for an insanity defense, his mental state will become the subject of study and debate by legal experts and forensic psychiatrists. Perhaps neuroscientists will scan his brain, and they’ll be able to develop a picture of where things started to go wrong with him.

4 thoughts on “Neuroscience and the Colorado shooting suspect

  1. Mark Vernon's website recently addressed neuroscience at length and stressed this:
    “…neuroscience carries weight in our public discourse. Carefully considered, it offers insights into what it is to be human. Although, what is revealed, upon a second reading, often seems not so much like new insights, as old insights re-described with the authority of science. ..One crucial phenomenon here is brain lateralisation: the significance of the fact that the brain is not symmetric. Its two hemispheres are structurally, physiologically and psychologically different. They see the world in different ways. In fact, argues Iain McGilchrist, in his fascinating book, The Master and His Emissary, it is best to think of the hemispheres as two personalities. It often makes better sense to ask what each hemisphere is like, as opposed to how it works.


  2. Now the media is saying he was not really a good student.
    Rumors fly…let's wait til his trial with the facts before we come to our own fantasy conclusions!


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