Dangerous Minds

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A UW researcher’s work with psychopaths inspires a new novel.

In the opening chapters of the new novel The Cure, scientist Erin Palmer is at a prison, conducting brain research on vicious murderers who are known psychopaths. She is alone inside a mobile MRI trailer with an inmate who is unguarded and unrestrained.

The technothriller is a work of fiction, but author Douglas E. Richards MS’87 found his inspiration in the research of Michael Koenigs ’02, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. (Koenigs was featured in the article “(Mis)Guided Light” in the Fall 2012 issue of On Wisconsin.) Richards tracked down Koenigs after reading about his work documenting differences between the brains of people with psychopathy and the general population.

Koenigs studies the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, located above and between the eyes, and how damage to it affects social behavior, emotion regulation, and decision-making. He talked Richards through the nuts and bolts of going into prisons to study psychopaths. “I was fascinated when he described how it was done,” Richards says. “I kept stopping him. ‘Wait a minute — you just go into a small, enclosed room with these people? Alone?’ ”

That conversation with Koenigs convinced Richards that he wanted to write about studying psychopaths. Though he initially had no idea what the plot would be, Richards crafted an action-packed thriller about a scientist who might be able to cure psychopathy.

Koenigs says Richards’s portrayal of the condition is the most accurate he has seen in any book, movie, or television show. “To me, the truth about psychopathy is even more interesting than the coarse sensationalisms that you typically see, and I think Richards did a great job of communicating the essence,” he says.

Richards is quick to give thanks to Koenigs, writing in the book’s dedication, “You’re a braver man than I.”

Published in the Winter 2013 issue

Tags: Alumni, books, Health and medicine, Research, Science

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