Making (Brain) Waves Novel Explores the World of Neurochemistry and Behavior

By John M. McGuire Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

Making (Brain) Waves Novel Explores the World of Neurochemistry and Behavior


John M. McGuire Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


It was soft and felt like a piece of wet cloth with threads attached. Then Ulman realized what he was holding: part of a human scalp. "I cut that off the guard after I blew his brains out," LePonty said. He put his mouth close to Ulman's right ear. His breath was warm: "Maybe you can explain why I did that, Doc." - From "The Kindling Effect"

SEX, VIOLENCE, romance and the functioning of the body's most important part - that complex orb, the brain - converge in local author Peter Hernon's latest book. Though fictional, Hernon's first medical suspense novel (he's working on a second) delves deeply into areas of real scientific inquiry, into what the future may hold.

Already, research has found that alterations in brain chemistry, neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, can increase or decrease a person's propensity for violence. "They've demonstrated that criminal behavior can be predicted and modified," said Hernon. Then he laughed: "I don't understand 60 percent of what they're doing." So Hernon went to school, interviewing psychiatrists and neurologists at schools of medicine at Washington and St. Louis universities, experts on brain-wave patterns and electromagnetic stimulation. And the researchers who work with brain-scan imagers, computerized pictures that slice the brain into razor-thin parts. So his novel is about dark urges and cutting-edge research into what drives this behavior - the compulsions that result in some of the worst crimes known to humankind, the work of serial sexual sadistic killers, the Jeffrey Dahmers and Theodores Bundys of the world. Is there a way, through medicine, to prevent this deviant behavior? For Peter Hernon, 48, an assistant city editor at the Post-Dispatch, a lot of the background material for this came from two local researchers: a forensic psychiatrist who works with serial sexual killers, Dr. John Rabun, and a psychologist whose specialty is the treatment of antisocial personality disorders, Allan Blake. Bits and pieces of Rabun's real cases pop up in Hernon's novel. And he credits the psychiatrist with showing him how the twisted mind of a serial killer works. Hernon even made psychiatric grand rounds with Rabun at the St. Louis University medical school a year and a half ago. It culminated in a brown-bag luncheon gathering with the student shrinks, who tried to eat (most decided against it) while watching Rabun's gruesome and grisly slides of the end result of the homicidal rages of serial killers. That real-life scene also made it into Hernon's novel. "Peter met with me multiple times, researching the behavior of serial sexual killers, and sexual sadistic deviants," said Rabun. "I find them some of the most fascinating psychiatric cases around." Obviously, so did Hernon. "Rabun went over all of the science and research and made numerous fixes" in the manuscript, said Hernon. "My editor, Henry Ferris, wanted to keep all the technical details, but make them reader-friendly. So it did get involved." So part of "The Kindling Effect" (William Morrow, $24) is a medical thriller centered on the latest research into brain abnormalities. What brain-kindling all means: these controversial neurochemical experiments, currently done only on animals. "Human research is not far off," said Rabun. What is kindling? Using electrical stimulation of the brain's limbic region - its most primitive part, where our darkest, primeval urges reside - kindling can cause the brain to go into a spontaneous seizure, basically rewiring it in the process. …

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