Electrical brain stimulation might prevent violent crime: Researchers at NTU and University of Pennsylvania

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Photo: Wikimedia commons

A team of researchers from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that when an electrical current is applied to the area of the brain that has been linked to committing violent acts, the intent to assault decreases. Simultaneously, this also increases moral awareness.

The study came about as the team delved into the possibility of stimulating the brain in order to lower crime rates, since it has been found that injury to the prefrontal cortex is connected to acts of violence. 

The study was conducted this way: 43 out of 86 healthy adults were given 20 minutes of stimulation to their brains. The whole group was then given two scenarios—a physical and sexual assault—to read about, and then asked to rate the possibility that they may have acted as the main characters did in the scenarios did.

The first hypothetical scene showed a man named Chris hitting another man, Joe, on the head with a bottle after he saw Joe talking to his girlfriend.  In the second one, a date rape occurs after some time of intimate foreplay.

The results were that those who received the electrical stimulation to their brains were 47 percent less likely to commit the physical assault and 70 percent less likely to commit the sexual assault 

NTU psychologist Professor Olivia Choy said that the team wanted to see if there is a causal role for the prefrontal cortex, since a connection between antisocial behavior and this area of the brain was confirmed some time ago. It is still unclear whether or not less brain activity in this area goads people into acts of violence.

Professor Choy, along with University of Pennsylvania’s Roy Hamilton and Adrian Raine, used a method called tDCS, (transcranial direct current stimulation) to deliver 2 milliAmp of current into the prefrontal cortex of volunteers in order to stimulate activity in this region.

They published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience, showing how stimulating the brain not only lessened people’s plans to assault others but also caused them to be more morally against these acts of violence. However, their lab experiments failed to show a lessening of actual violence, since another portion of the study has the volunteers place pins in voodoo dolls to vent their feelings, and these dolls ended up full of pins from both groups in the experiment—those who had received the brain stimulation, and those who hadn’t.

The team knows there is much more research to be done to determine whether brain stimulation can actually prevent violent crime, but Adrain Raine thinks it is possible that one day it could stand alongside other interventions.  “When most people think of crime they think bad neighbourhoods, poverty, discrimination, and those are all correct. 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.”

Other experts such as Caroline Di Bernardi Luft said that since the actual criminals had not participated in these experiments, there would be difficulty in proving that electrical brain stimulation can prevent or decrease crime. Ms. Luft is a a psychologist who studies tDCS at Queen Mary, University of London.

She also warned of the dangers of the procedure backfiring. “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.” 

The team from NTU and the University of Pennsylvania is planning to continue with their experiments on a bigger group of volunteers. This time they will concentrate on applying brain stimulation to the ventral prefrontal cortex, and are hoping that they can help people control the strong emotions that lead to impulsive violent behavior.

According to Adrian Raine, “If the science down the road shows that this can work and change behaviour, what’s so heinous about giving this as an option with people’s consent? I see this coming and we need to be prepared for it.”