Pedophiles' brains are "abnormally tuned" to find young children attractive, according to a new study published this week. The research, led by Jorge Ponseti at Germany's University of Kiel, means that it may be possible to diagnose pedophiles in the future before they are able to offend.
The findings, published in scientific journal Biology Letters, discovered that pedophiles have the same neurological reaction to images of those they find attractive as those of people with ordinary sexual predilections, but that all the relevant cerebral areas become engaged when they see children, as opposed to fellow adults. The occipital areas, prefrontal cortex, putamen, and nucleus caudatus become engaged whenever a person finds another attractive, but the subject of this desire is inverted for pedophiles.
While studies into the cognitive wiring of sex offenders have long been a source of debate, this latest research offers some fairly conclusive proof that there is a neural pattern behind their behavior.
The paper explains: "The human brain contains networks that are tuned to face processing, and these networks appear to activate different processing streams of the reproductive domain selectively: nurturing processing in the case of child faces and sexual processing in the case of sexually preferred adult faces. This implies that the brain extracts age-related face cues of the preferred sex that inform appropriate response selection in the reproductive domains: nurturing in the case of child faces and mating in the case of adult faces."
Usually children's faces elicit feelings of caregiving from both sexes, whereas those of adults provide stimuli in choosing a mate. But among pedophiles, this trend is skewed, with sexual, as opposed to nurturing, emotions burgeoning.
The study analyzed the MRI scans of 56 male participants, a group that included 13 homosexual pedophiles and 11 heterosexual pedophiles, exposing them to "high arousing" images of men, women, boys, and girls. Participants then ranked each photo for attractiveness, leading researchers to their conclusion that the brain network of pedophiles is activated by sexual immaturity.
"The critical new finding is that face processing is also tuned to face cues revealing the developmental stage that is sexually preferred," the paper reads.
Usually children's faces elicit feelings of caregiving from both sexes, but among pedophiles, this trend is skewed, with sexual, as opposed to nurturing, emotions burgeoning.
Dr. James Cantor, associate professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, said he was "delighted" by the study's results. "I have previously described pedophilia as a 'cross-wiring' of sexual and nurturing instincts, and this data neatly verifies that interpretation."
Cantor has undertaken extensive research into the area, previously finding that pedophiles are more likely to be left-handed, 2.3 cm shorter than the average male, and 10 to 15 IQ points lower than the norm.
He continued: "This [new] study is definitely a step in the right direction, and I hope other researchers repeat this kind of work. There still exist many contradictions among scientists' observations, especially in identifying exactly which areas of the brain are the most central to pedophilia. Because financial support for these kinds of studies is quite small, these studies have been quite small, permitting them to achieve only incremental progress. Truly definitive studies about what in the brain causes pedophilia, what might detect it, and what might prevent it require much more significant support."
Ponseti said that he hoped to investigate this area further by examining whether findings could be emulated when images of children's faces are the sole ones used. This could lead to gauging a person's predisposition to pedophilia far more simply than any means currently in place. "We could start to look at the onset of pedophilia, which is probably in puberty at about 12 or 14 years [old]," he told The Independent.
While Cantor is correct in citing the less than abundant size of the study, the research is certainly significant in providing scope for future practicable testing that could reduce the number of pedophilic crimes committed. By being able to run these tests and examine a person's tendency toward being sexually attracted to underage children, rehabilitative care and necessary precautions could be taken to safeguard children and ensure that those at risk of committing a crime of this ilk would not be able to do so.
Following the horrors of the Sandusky scandal and the endless conveyor belt of children kidnapped as sex slaves, finding the root of the problem and stopping it in any way possible has never been more important.