What if violent people are victims of their own prefrontal cortex?
Harvard University researchers had a year ago found through brain scans of prison inmates that psychopaths have higher activity in a region called ventral striatum involved in feelings of reward, but poor connections between the striatum and regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in decision-making.
The promising findings suggest giving a boost to activity in this part of the brain through electric stimulation could prove crucial in reducing the intent to commit violent crimes, but the researchers have stressed they need further work to confirm the possibility and come to an applicable and scalable solution.
The scientists say they picked the prefrontal cortex for stimulation because earlier studies have documented that anti-social individuals have deficits in this region of the brain. Then, they asked the group to read two scenarios. One of the researchers, Adrian Raine, described the method. Those studies were not conclusive on whether the aggressive behavior was caused by an impaired prefrontal cortex or if it is the other way around.
Neuroscientists are fairly certain of the functions of many areas of the brain.
"If an offender's brain is scanned, we don't really know if it's the brain deficit that leads to the behavior or if it's the other way around", she said.
The researchers employed trans-cranial direct-current stimulation, a minimally invasive technique that uses constant, low direct current transmitted through electrodes on the head to arrive at the results.
The process was originally developed to help people with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions like major depressive disorder.
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Immediately afterward, the participants were asked if they might behave as the protagonist did in the stories, on a rating scale.
The people whose prefrontal cortex was stimulated reported roughly half the likelihood of committing a violent act like the ones they watched, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania reported on Monday; they said they found such physical and sexual violence more morally wrong, compared with the control group. We only did one 20-minute session, and we saw an effect. The second group received a placebo treatment that lasted 30 seconds.
The claims raised skepticism among critics who wondered if there is a treatment for an act such as sexual misconduct.
In theory, the results mean that simple biological interventions-either separately or in conjunction with psychological interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy-have the potential to reduce violent behavior.
'All of our intents to treat violence have been very social, ' said Dr Raine. This might even reveal how the technique would if applied on a long-run, say for like three times a week for a month. Racial discrimination, socioeconomic status also have a role in violent behavior.
The researchers agree that the study needs to be replicated, but they are hopeful the stimulation will be a new form of treatment.
"We're trying to find benign biological interventions that society will accept - and transcranial direct-current stimulation is minimal risk", Raine said.
While it may not be a "magic bullet", it could potentially become an intervention offered to first-time offenders in the future, according to senior author Roy Hamilton, an associate professor of neurology at Penn.