Neurocriminology, the Understanding of Criminality

Criminal behavior could have a neurobiological foundation. In fact, some experts point out that, in the future, violence and crime might be prevented if certain biological markers are addressed.
Neurocriminology, the Understanding of Criminality

Last update: 22 May, 2021

Primitives, savages, and even biologically inferior. That’s how Cesare Lombroso described criminals in the 19th century. In addition, this controversial Italian physician and criminologist suggested that individuals inclined to criminal behavior shared certain physical traits. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the field of neurocriminology originated from his ideas.

Adrian Raine, professor of criminology and psychiatry at Richard Perry University seems to disagree. He even endorsed Dr. Lombroso in his celebrated book The Anatomy of Violence. In fact, Raine suggests that if we remove Lombroso’s variables of underlying racism and outdated ideas of phrenology, we should thank this founder of positivist criminology for the idea that criminal behavior has biological roots.

Criminal behavior and violence are increasingly seen as among the most significant public health problems around the world. In fact, we’re facing a biopsychosocial phenomenon. We obviously can’t exclude these psychological and social factors. However, there’s also another aspect that warrants further investigation: the neurological one.

A man punching.

What’s neurocriminology?

When you think of criminality, you probably think of figures like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (Pogo the Clown), or Jeffrey Dahmer (the Milwaukee Butcher). However, the truth is that criminal and violent behavior happens every second around the world in multiple ways. Nevertheless, not all assaults, thefts, or psychopathic behaviors appear in the media or are the subject of Netflix TV series.

Violence has and always will be one of the problems with the greatest impact on society. It’s here that science takes center stage. Neurocriminology is a discipline that applies a series of methodologies and techniques aimed at understanding, predicting, treating, and even preventing violence and crime.

However, there are certain ethical-legal problems implicit within this field. For example, as Dr. Adrian Raine points out, there may be a point in the future when all men aged 18 and over will get a brain scan and a DNA test to predict their risk of violent behavior. This is because there are nine male murderers for every female murderer.

Development of violence on a neurological foundation

Something that’s quite clear is that not only biology explains the cause of criminal behavior. Other risk factors include the environment, being abused, mistreated, or neglected. Drug use during pregnancy and its effect on the fetus is another factor to be considered. In addition, there’s context, as Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in his famous Stanford prison experiment.

Nowadays, advances in neuroimaging techniques and monitoring brain activity are key to the increased understanding of violent behavior. Neurocriminology completes one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle, along with social and environmental aspects.

Dr. Luis Moya Albiol, professor of psychobiology at the University of Valencia, conducted a study. In this work, he indicates that there’s a complex neural system along with chemical substances that regulate criminal behavior.

The neurobiological basis of violence

According to neurocriminology, the network involved in violent behavior comprises the following structures:

  • The white matter of the prefrontal cortex.
  • The amygdala. It plays a key role in the development of aggressive behaviors.
  • The hypothalamus. This is essential in the expression of emotions.
  • Serotonin. This is the neurotransmitter most linked to violent behavior. The lower its levels, the more increased the risk of violent behavior.
  • Norepinephrine is also part of the neurobiological basis of aggression.
  • Furthermore, substances such as catecholamines, GABA, glutamate, acetylcholine, nitric oxide, vasopressin, substance P, histamine, and endogenous opioids are involved.

Neurocriminology and neuroethics

As we mentioned above, these advances in neurocriminology present certain ethical-legal challenges. For example, violent offenders might now be seen as having a brain disorder. For this reason, a deficit in the processing of emotion or lack of empathy could call into question whether they’re responsible for their crimes.

As Dr. Moya explains, in the study we mentioned above, neurocriminology opens up new fronts which prompt questions like: What implications might there be due to the prediction of future criminal behavior? Could its application be useful to society?

Positive neurocriminology

Neurocriminology seeks to understand, treat, and prevent violent behavior. Furthermore, it makes for an approach that’s both interesting and enriching.

In fact, neurocriminology brings together psychology and criminology in a more holistic manner. This means it goes beyond the negative or problematic behavior in itself. For example, one way in which it could rehabilitate or even prevent violent behavior would be to work on emotions, empathy, prosocial behavior, altruism, reducing impulsivity, and enhancing positive experiences. In addition, to promote human strengths such as kindness or happiness.

Finally, although biology doesn’t completely determine us, it’s a risk factor that should be understood. Furthermore, neurocriminology is a booming discipline that might, in the not-too-distant future, be extremely useful in the prevention of violence.

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  •  A., Raine, The Anatomy of Violence (Random House LLC, 2013)
  • A. Raine, Reduced Prefrontal Gray Matter Volume and Reduced Autonomic Activity in Antisocial Personality Disorder (2000). Arch Gen Psychiatry. Available at
  • Moya A, L., Sariñana G, P., Vitoria E, S., & Romero M, Á. (2017). La neurocriminología como disciplina aplicada emergente. Vox Juris33(33), 15–20. Retrieved from https://dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/articulo/6058766.pdf
  • Moya-Albiol, L. (2015). Neurocriminología. Psicobiología de la violencia. Madrid: Pirámide.