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Electrical stimulation of the brain can help reduce violent crime in a future study

    Abdulaziz Sobh
    By Abdulaziz Sobh

    Categories: Health

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    It could be a surprising way to treat future criminals. Scientists have discovered that an electrical stimulation session of the brain can reduce people's intentions to commit attacks and increase their moral conscience.

    Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore explored the potential of brain stimulation to fight crime after pointing out that deterioration in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex has been linked to violent acts.

    They recruited 86 healthy adults and gave half of them 20 minutes of brain stimulation before asking the whole group to read two hypothetical scenarios, one describing a physical assault and the other a sexual assault. Immediately afterward, the participants were asked to rate the probability that they could behave like the protagonist in the stories.

    For those who had their brains sacrificed, the expressed likelihood of carrying out the physical and sexual assaults was 47% and 70% lower respectively than those who did not have brain stimulation. In the first scenario, Chris breaks a bottle over Joe's head by talking to his girlfriend, and in the second, a night of intimate foreplay leads to a rape.

    Professor Olivia Choy, an NTU psychologist, said that although neuroscientists have long established a link between altered activity in the prefrontal cortex and antisocial behavior, it was not clear whether reduced brain activity triggered violent acts. "We wanted to test if there is a causal role for that region of the brain," he said.

    Using a procedure called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, Choy and colleagues Adrian Raine and Roy Hamilton at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a current of 2 milliAmp to the prefrontal cortex of volunteers to boost the activity of the region.

    Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers describe how brain stimulation reduced people's intentions to commit attacks and made them more morally opposed to the acts. But at least in the laboratory, the stimulation did not reduce the actual violent acts. Part of the study allowed the volunteers to express their emotions on the voodoo dolls, which ended up dotted with pins, regardless of whether they had brain stimulation or not.

    Scientists stress that much more work is needed to confirm whether or not brain stimulation could help reduce violent crime in the future. But if it is effective, Raine believes it could be offered to convicted criminals along with other more traditional interventions.

    "When most people think about crime, think about bad neighborhoods, poverty, discrimination, and they're all correct," Raine said. "But we also believe that there is a biological contribution to a crime that has been seriously neglected in the past." What this shows is that there could be a new, different approach to trying to reduce crime and violence in society. "

    Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, a psychologist who studies tDCS at Queen Mary, University of London, points out that the study was not conducted with criminals and that it will be difficult to prove that brain stimulation can reduce crime in real life.

    Brain stimulation may also be counterproductive, he said. "It gives your brain a little push, and if it increases what's already happening in your brain, you could actually make things worse," he said. One way to prevent that could be to stimulate the brain while people perform tasks designed to increase their moral awareness, he added.

    Scientists now expect to perform experiments on a greater number of people using a more specific brain stimulation procedure. By boosting activity in a region of the brain called the ventral prefrontal cortex, they hope to help people control the powerful emotions that lead to impulsive attacks.

    "If the science on the road shows that this can work and change behavior, what's wrong with giving this as an option with the consent of the people?" Raine said. "I see that this is coming and we have to be prepared for that."