Study-Electrical brain stimulation may raise moral awareness

If research conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore proves accurate, it looks like a new method for treating violent criminals may come in the form of electrical brain stimulation. This new treatment idea is believed to reduce people’s intentions of committing violent crimes by raising their moral awareness.

This new study was conducted as a means of exploring the potential for stimulating the brain in fighting violent crime after the team noticed an apparent impairment in the prefrontal cortex which has previously been linked to violent acts.

For this study, researchers gave half of their participants—there were 86 total—20 minutes of brain stimulation before presenting the whole group with hypothetical scenarios. Of those scenarios, one them described a violent physical assault and the other scenario presented a sexual assault. Immediately following this, the participants were asked to provide a rating of how likely they might be to behaving as the protagonist in the scenarios.

The results showed that of the participants that had the brain stimulation, 47% were likely to carry out the physical attacks, and 70% were less likely to carry out the sexual attack compared to those participants that did not receive the brain stimulation. For more clarity on the study methods, the scenarios were as follows:

  • In the first scenario, Chris smashes Joe’s head with a bottle because he chatted with Joe’s girlfriend.
  • The second scenario has a woman being date raped after an evening of intimate foreplay.

According to Professor Olivia Choy, psychologist at NTU, even though scientists have already discovered a link between antisocial behaviour and the prefrontal cortex, they weren’t certain if reduced brain activity triggered violent acts. They wanted to test that theory. While this sounds a bit messed up, I can see why this could be useful.

Scientists finally managed to do so by using a procedure called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to deliver a 2milliAmp current to the prefrontal cortex of participants as a means of giving a boost to the region’s activity levels.

In the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers explained exactly how brain stimulation raised moral awareness in people and lowered their intentions on committing violent assaults. It should be noted however, that the brain stimulation didn’t actually lessen the violent acts. While the study allowed the participants to vent their emotions elsewhere (voodoo dolls) it showed that the participants still acted aggressively whether they had stimulation or not, they just did it in a different way by peppering the dolls with pins.

Clearly this means that the actual practice of using brain stimulation to raise moral awareness needs more work, but the potential is there to reduce the violent acts in the future if the treatment is perfected. If the treatment is proven to work, Raine thinks it could be used as a treatment addition for violent criminals in conjunction with other, more traditional means of intervention.

“When most people think of crime they think bad neighbourhoods, poverty, discrimination, and those are all correct,” said Raine. “But we also believe that there’s a biological contribution to crime which has been seriously neglected in the past. What this shows is that there could be a new, different approach to try and reduce crime and violence in society.”

Another psychologist, Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, who studies tDCS at Queen Mary, University of London, is not so convinced of the potential treatments success. She explains that since the study was not performed on actual criminals it will be hard to prove that brain stimulation can even reduce real life crimes. She also explains that brain stimulation might backfire.

“It gives your brain a little push. And if it increases whatever is already going on in your brain, you might actually make matters worse,” she said.

She adds, “One way to prevent that could be to give brain stimulation while people perform tasks that are designed to boost their moral awareness.”

For now, the scientists want to continue their research and experiments on larger groups of people, hoping to help people to control the emotions that lead them to these impulsive assaults. Raine is hoping that her brain stimulation treatment is offered to future patients on a volunteer basis. With so many violent crimes taking place every day, the study sounds promising.

Image source:/ Affen Ajlfe


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