Seena Fazel and colleagues report findings from a longitudinal follow-up study in Sweden that evaluated the risks of violent crime subsequent to hospitalization for epilepsy, or traumatic brain injury. The researchers control for familial confounding with sibling controls. The analyses call into question an association between epilepsy and violent crime, although they do suggest that there may be a relationship between traumatic brain injury and violent crime.
Epilepsy and traumatic brain injury are common neurological conditions, with general population prevalence estimates around 0.5% and 0.3%, respectively. Although both illnesses are associated with various adverse outcomes, and expert opinion has suggested increased criminality, links with violent behaviour remain uncertain.
Methods and Findings
We combined Swedish population registers from 1973 to 2009, and examined associations of epilepsy (n = 22,947) and traumatic brain injury (n = 22,914) with subsequent violent crime (defined as convictions for homicide, assault, robbery, arson, any sexual offense, or illegal threats or intimidation). Each case was age and gender matched with ten general population controls, and analysed using conditional logistic regression with adjustment for socio-demographic factors. In addition, we compared cases with unaffected siblings.
Among the traumatic brain injury cases, 2,011 individuals (8.8%) committed violent crime after diagnosis, which, compared with population controls (n = 229,118), corresponded to a substantially increased risk (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] = 3.3, 95% CI: 3.1–3.5); this risk was attenuated when cases were compared with unaffected siblings (aOR = 2.0, 1.8–2.3). Among individuals with epilepsy, 973 (4.2%) committed a violent offense after diagnosis, corresponding to a significantly increased odds of violent crime compared with 224,006 population controls (aOR = 1.5, 1.4–1.7). However, this association disappeared when individuals with epilepsy were compared with their unaffected siblings (aOR = 1.1, 0.9–1.2). We found heterogeneity in violence risk by age of disease onset, severity, comorbidity with substance abuse, and clinical subgroups. Case ascertainment was restricted to patient registers.
In this longitudinal population-based study, we found that, after adjustment for familial confounding, epilepsy was not associated with increased risk of violent crime, questioning expert opinion that has suggested a causal relationship. In contrast, although there was some attenuation in risk estimates after adjustment for familial factors and substance abuse in individuals with traumatic brain injury, we found a significantly increased risk of violent crime. The implications of these findings will vary for clinical services, the criminal justice system, and patient charities.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
News stories linking mental illness (diseases that appear primarily as abnormalities of thought, feeling or behavior) with violence frequently hit the headlines. But what about neurological conditions—disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves? People with these disorders, which include dementia, Parkinson's disease, and brain tumors, often experience stigmatization and discrimination, a situation that is made worse by the media and by some experts suggesting that some neurological conditions increase the risk of violence. For example, many modern textbooks assert that epilepsy—a neurological condition that causes repeated seizures or fits—is associated with increased criminality and violence. Similarly, various case studies have linked traumatic brain injury—damage to the brain caused by a sudden blow to the head—with an increased risk of violence.
Why Was This Study Done?
Despite public and expert perceptions, very little is actually known about the relationship between epilepsy and traumatic brain injury and violence. In particular, few if any population-based, longitudinal studies have investigated whether there is an association between the onset of either of these two neurological conditions and violence at a later date. This information might make it easier to address the stigma that is associated with these conditions. Moreover, it might help scientists understand the neurobiological basis of violence, and it could help health professionals appropriately manage individuals with these two disorders. In this longitudinal study, the researchers begin to remedy the lack of hard information about links between neurological conditions and violence by investigating the risk of violent crime associated with epilepsy and with traumatic brain injury in the Swedish population.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used the National Patient Register to identify all the cases of epilepsy and traumatic brain injury that occurred in Sweden between 1973 and 2009. They matched each case (nearly 23,000 for each condition) with ten members of the general population and retrieved data on all convictions for violent crime over the same period from the Crime Register. They then linked these data together using the personal identification numbers that identify Swedish residents in national registries. 4.2% of individuals with epilepsy had at least one conviction for violence after their diagnosis, but only 2.5% of the general population controls did. That is, epilepsy increased the absolute risk of a conviction for violence by 1.7%. Using a regression analysis that adjusted for age, gender, and various socio-demographic factors, the researchers calculated that the odds of individuals with epilepsy committing a violent crime were 1.5 times higher than for general population controls (an adjusted odds ratio [aOR] of 1.5). The strength of this association was reduced when further adjustment was made for substance abuse, and disappeared when individuals with epilepsy were compared with their unaffected siblings (a sibling control study). Similarly, 8.8% of individuals with traumatic brain injury were convicted of a violent crime after their diagnosis compared to only 3% of controls, giving an aOR of 3.3. Again, the strength of this association was reduced when affected individuals were compared to their unaffected siblings (aOR = 2.0) and when adjustment was made for substance abuse (aOR = 2.3).
What Do These Findings Mean?
Although some aspects of this study may have affected the accuracy of its findings, these results nevertheless challenge the idea that there are strong direct links between epilepsy and violent crime. The low absolute rate of violent crime and the lack of any association between epilepsy and violent crime in the sibling control study argue against a strong link, a potentially important finding given the stigmatization of epilepsy. For traumatic brain injury, the reduced association with violent crime in the sibling control study compared with the general population control study suggests that shared familial features may be responsible for some of the association between brain injury and violence. As with epilepsy, this finding should help patient charities who are trying to reduce the stigma associated with traumatic brain injury. Importantly, however, these findings also suggest that some groups of patients with these conditions (for example, patients with head injuries who abuse illegal drugs and alcohol) would benefit from being assessed for their risk of behaving violently and from appropriate management.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001150.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Jan Volavka
The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides detailed information about traumatic brain injury and about epilepsy (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about severe head injury, including a personal story about a head injury sustained in a motor vehicle accident, and information about epilepsy, including personal stories about living with epilepsy
Healthtalkonline has information on epilepsy, including patient perspectives
MedlinePlus provide links to further resources on traumatic brain injury and on epilepsy (available in English and Spanish)