Neuroscientists debunk idea Colorado suspect James Holmes was supersmart

11:40 AM, Jul 25, 2012   |    comments
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James Holmes in his first court appearance, July 23 2012.

(USA TODAY) -- James Holmes seemed well on his way to a career as a scientist.

His résumé after he graduated with honors in neuroscience from the University of California-Riverside in 2010 cites experience in the lab dissecting birds, studying their musculature and analyzing data and graphs to measure molecules.

A video from a science camp he attended after high school shows him making a presentation about temporal illusions, misfirings in brain cells that lead to misreading the passage of time - the feeling that time stands still. In the video, Holmes refers to "an illusion that allows you to change the past."

He was one of six students admitted to the University of Colorado's graduate program in neuroscience last year. He received a $26,000 federal stipend.

But neuroscientist David Eagleman says Holmes' credentials were no better than those of an average student. The mass killing suspect is no elite neuroscientist, says Eagleman, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"He was just a second-year grad student," he says. "He didn't know anything."

Aurora, Colo., police say Holmes, 24, entered a midnight showing of the movie The Dark Knight Rises early Friday and opened fire with a rifle, shotgun and .40-caliber handgun, killing 12 people and injuring 58. They found his apartment booby-trapped with explosives and chemicals set to explode if someone entered.

Eagleman, a former researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., where Holmes attended the eight-week summer camp when he was 18, said the young man had a reputation as a "dolt."

Eagleman didn't know Holmes but says the teen parroted his advisers' words in his presentation on temporal illusions. A video of the speech was first reported by ABC News.

"He was just given the presentation to read," Eagleman says. "He wasn't any sort of superscientist when he was 18."

Stacie Spector, a Salk Institute spokeswoman, confirmed that Holmes attended a summer course at the institute but said that she could not comment further because of privacy concerns. She said the institute did not release the video.

John Jacobson, a former researcher at Salk whom Holmes listed as his mentor during the camp, told the Los Angeles Times that the teenager was a "mediocre" student who was stubborn and did not listen to direction.

"I saw a shy, pretty socially inept person," he told the newspaper. "I didn't see any behavior that would be indicative of violence then or in the future."

Jacobson told the newspaper Holmes "should not have gotten into the summer program. His grades were mediocre. I've heard him described as brilliant. This is extremely inaccurate."

He said Holmes' high school transcripts showed Bs and no advanced-placement classes. He was accepted to the camp because he had done computer programming, Jacobson said. He was never Holmes' mentor, he said, but Holmes worked in his lab to write a computer code for an experiment Jacobson was working on. He told the newspaper Holmes never finished it.

"What he gave me was a complete mess," Jacobson says.

Holmes' résumé suggests he was trained in dissection of birds and mice, performing chemistry tests and attaching small gene tags to cells to target them for treatment.

"Recipe-book stuff, literally, that every biology student should learn," Eagleman says. As for the grant, Eagleman says, "Holmes is being depicted as some sort of brilliant researcher who won a rare grant, but there are thousands of research students in this country with such grants. Everyone has one. There is nothing elite about it."

Holmes had difficulty with a June 7 preliminary exam, given orally by three university faculty members. It is designed to evaluate students' knowledge at the end of the first year. Three days later, Holmes dropped out.

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