Brain Stimulation May Reduce Aggressive Behavior

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Brain stimulation curbs ‘appetite’ for violence

They conducted a double-blind randomized control trial, for which they recruited 81 healthy people, aged 18 or older. The volunteers were randomly assigned to either receive low-current stimulation for 30 seconds or more intense 20-minute stimulation to the prefrontal cortex.

Since 30-second, low-current stimulation would have no effect on brain activity, the group assigned to receive it was considered the “control” group. Neither the participants nor the people running the experiment knew who was assigned what.

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After the brain stimulation, all the participants were asked to consider two imaginary scenarios: one involving physical assault, and the other involving sexual abuse.

They were asked to rate how likely they would be to picture themselves as the person perpetrating the violence in those scenarios, on a scale from 0 (completely unlikely) to 10 (extremely likely).

They were also asked to rate how morally reprehensible the acts depicted in those scenarios felt to them.

The participants who received 20-minute prefrontal cortex stimulation were less likely to consider both physical and sexual violence, compared with those in the control group.

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These people had a 47 percent lower chance of considering physical assault, and a 70 percent lower likelihood of contemplating sexual abuse.

“Historically we haven’t taken this kind of approach to interventions around violence,” he explains. “But this has promise. We only did one 20-minute session and we saw an effect. What if we had more sessions? What if we did it three times a week for a month?”

The ‘opposite’ of a lobotomy?

The researchers argue that the results of their study suggest that such an intervention — possibly in combination with other therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy — could be a minimally invasive way of curbing violent behavior.

“We’re trying to find benign biological interventions that society will accept, and transcranial direct-current stimulation is minimal risk,” says Raine.

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“This isn’t a frontal lobotomy. In fact, we’re saying the opposite, that the front part of the brain needs to be better connected to the rest of the brain.”

Adrian Raine

Still, the team acknowledges that, even with such promising findings, this is but the first step in a long process of figuring out what the best approach might be when it comes to using brain stimulation as therapy for individuals who are predisposed to violent behaviors.

The study should first of all be replicated, and the results consolidated, notes Choy.

“This is not the magic bullet that’s going to wipe away aggression and crime,” admits Raine. “But,” he goes on to ask, “could transcranial direct-current stimulation be offered as an intervention technique for first-time offenders, to reduce their likelihood of recommitting a violent act?”

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