Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Scientists link aggression to brain impairment

posted: May 28, 2002  

Washington, May 28 (ANI): A new study by US researchers has found that people who have trouble controlling their anger might be suffering from a mild form of brain dysfunction. Their tests suggest that being prone to aggressive, even violent, outbursts is linked to impairments in a region of the brain called the orbital/medial prefrontal cortex circuit, reports New Scientist.

Psychiatric diagnoses of the condition, known as Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) are rare. But, according to Mary Best at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, "Even individuals who do not meet full criteria for the disorder can still have frequent uncontrollable episodes of impulsive aggression and they can impact society through their violent behaviour. An example would be a spousal abuser".

This is the first study to find a deficit in a particular brain region in patients with IED and could lead to new behavioural treatments. The disorder usually starts in adolescence and most cases probably go undiagnosed. Some psychologists have even blamed IED episodes for recent cases of school pupils massacring fellow students.

Best and colleagues studied 24 IED patients, along with 22 control subjects. They found that the patients with IED had difficulty learning to consistently avoid making choices with a high level of punishment. So they may use aggression as a problem-solving strategy, even though they run the risk of injury or imprisonment.

IED patients were also less successful at judging facial expressions. "They were impaired at recognising negative expressions - anger and disgust, and biased to label neutral expressions with negative emotions", Best noted.

The work suggests that teaching patients to judge facial expressions more accurately, or at least to recognise deficiencies associated with triggering angry outbursts, might help treatment.

The underlying cause of the orbital/medial prefrontal cortex dysfunction is not known. But previous research has shown that some IED patients respond to treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors - such as Prozac, more commonly used to treat depression. This implicates low levels of serotonin in the disorder. (ANI)

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