Richard E. Tremblay wins the “Nobel Prize of criminology”

Credit: Jean-François Hamelin

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Child development specialist Richard E. Tremblay has received one of the most important international awards in criminology, the Stockholm Prize.

Canadian psychologist Richard E. Tremblay, Professor Emeritus at Université de Montréal, has been awarded the 2017 Stockholm Prize, known as the “Nobel Prize in criminology” because of its prestige in the global scientific community. “I am honoured by this recognition, especially because I have no training in criminology," Tremblay said from Europe, where he spends much of his time because of his work teaching at the School of Public Health, University College Dublin. "I was oriented toward the problems of delinquency during my studies in psychology at Université de Montréal 49 years ago, in the program that was at the origin of the School of Psychoeducation."

The award, with a grant of one million kronor (approximately CAD $145,000) was created in 2006 by the Swedish Ministry of Justice to recognize “outstanding achievements in criminology research or the application of research results by practitioners for the reduction of crime and the advancement of human rights.” This is the first time the award has been given to a Canadian.

Tremblay is founding director of the Research Unit on Children's Psychosocial Maladjustment (known by its French acronym GRIP), which was created in 1984 and now comprises some 40 researchers from six universities. He is the author of more than 500 studies that have been cited 40,000 times, according to Google Scholar. As a specialist in child development he is known in particular for having developed a database in 1984 to trace the origins of delinquency. The Montreal Longitudinal and Experimental Study contains data on approximately 1,000 boys at 53 schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, as well as on their parents and the families' social environment. When Tremblay and his colleagues created the database, which at the time was unique in the world, the goal was to focus preventive interventions on more accurate targets in order to increase their effectiveness. The database has made it possible to identify, from kindergarten, boys most at risk of developing serious problems and behaviours during adolescence and early adulthood. Its experimental element has demonstrated the long-term effectiveness of intensive interventions with young boys most at risk. The boys are now nearly 40 years old and continue to participate in the study with their own children.

 “Richard Tremblay has traced the roots of chronic aggressive behaviour back as far as infancy. Now he hopes to go back further,” said a lengthy article on his work, published in Nature in December 2013. The epigenetic direction Tremblay has taken in the past ten years is “provocative,” wrote journalist Stephen S. Hall, because it rests on the assumption that the environment influences gene expression.

Delinquency and genetics

Indeed, Tremblay’s research investigates not only the genetic but also the epigenetic sources of delinquency. “The quality of the environment influences the development of the fetus from the first moments of pregnancy,” the Stockholm Prize laureate explained. “We therefore follow research subjects, including identical twins, over several years to observe the association between the development of gene expression and differences in phenotype development."

The idea came to Professor Tremblay during a meeting in Vancouver in 2014. Tremblay was a member of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research on Human Development. One of the invitees, McGill University epigeneticist Moshe Szyf, presented the work of McGill brain researcher Michael Meaney on the short- and long-term epigenetic effects of maternal nurturing in rats. Meaney had long shown that newborn rat pups who were least licked by their mothers had more fear behaviours and shorter lives compared to those who had received more maternal care.

“Their novel work was an amazing revelation for us: when the mothers licked their young, it sent a chemical signal that activated the genes controlling brain development," Tremblay recalled. "I immediately asked Moshe if he would work with us to see how this epigenetic mechanism could play a role in the development of chronic aggressive behaviour.”

Twelve years later, the work is progressing well, but it will take a few more decades to achieve results in humans that are as conclusive as those in rats.

A winning interdisciplinary team

In addition to studying criminology, Tremblay has innovated in the area of interdisciplinary research by breaking down the barriers between the various branches of science. With a doctorate in educational psychology, he began a career in physical education before moving on to psychoeducation. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the Department of Pediatrics and Psychology (Université de Montréal) and Professor of Public Health (University College Dublin). But his main achievement is to have brought together experts from various disciplines to understand human development in its entirety.

As the son of a professional football player — his father played for the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 1950s — Tremblay learned early on the importance of teamwork. But he is also able to face individual challenges, having become a marathon runner at 64.

Born on the bad side

In an article published in 1999 in Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, Tremblay and his colleagues provided data showing that human aggression did not peak at 25 or 16 years of age, but rather at 17 months. Even the most dangerous criminals, violent offenders and serial murderers are not, relatively speaking, as aggressive as kids in daycare.

“Any child care professional will tell you that children have to be protected from one another. We do not let them play with kitchen knives, for example: they could hurt someone. Even for developmental experts like us it wasn't obvious," Tremblay said with a laugh. The old adage, coined by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1772, is that humans are born good but are made bad by their environment. But even though that view still holds sway in the social sciences, for Tremblay it's no longer true. Physical aggression, he believes, is the default setting in human behaviour and usually disappears as children are socialized, especially as they learn language. Violence, delinquency and even homicide are not rooted in adolescent trauma but in early childhood. From the first day of school, the incidence of physical aggression diminishes and persists for only a minority of young people. These are the ones who, as they say, “turn out bad.”

“For years, researchers have been wondering why some adolescents become violent adults and others do not," Tremblay said. "They were looking for the elusive 'onset.' By following a group of children from kindergarten to adulthood, I had the evidence in front of me. But I had to look first.”

(Extract from Forum, September 27, 1999)

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