Sex offenders may think twice about assaulting someone after brain stimulation, a new study claims.
Researchers suggest that sending electrical currents to the prefrontal cortex could inject a sense of consciousness within a person that feels an urge to touch someone inappropriately, making them half as likely to carry out violent acts.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for controlling complex behaviors and decision-making.
The minimally invasive technique, which sends low, direct electrical currents via electrodes to the brain, creates an increased awareness of acts of physical and sexual assault as morally wrong, the team says.
The study, from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, is the first to show the possibility of physical or biological interventions to help reduce violent behavior.
Stimulating the brain by sending electrical currents to the prefrontal cortex could reduce a person’s intention to commit a violent act, a new study has revealed (file image)
For the study, the team had 81 participants, aged 18 and older, who were randomly assigned to one of two groups.
The first group had their prefrontal cortex stimulated for 20 minutes while the second group received a low current for just 30 seconds.
The trial was double-blind, meaning the participants did not know which group they were a part of nor did the person administering the electrical currents.
Co-author Dr Adrian Raine said that the researchers chose the prefrontal cortex due to past research showing that criminal offenders have shortfalls in this region of the brain.
‘A lot of brain imaging research has shown that murders and violent offenders have poorer functioning in the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex,’ Dr Raine, a professor in the department of criminology at UPenn, told Daily Mail Online.
Dr Raine said a study he conducted in the ’90s had shown that murderers had poor functioning and low activity in the prefrontal cortex.
‘Offenders have poorer functioning in the brain. So if bad brains cause bad behavior, can we change the brain to improve brain behavior?’ he said.
Lead author Dr Olivia Choy, an assistant professor of psychology at NTU in Singapore, added that the team wanted to see if the brain deficit led to the bad behavior or if the reverse was true.
The researchers used a process called transcranial direct-current stimulation, which sends constant, low currents to the brain.
The process was originally developed to help people with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions like major depressive disorder.
Both prior to the stimulation, and following it, participants received two hypothetical scenarios, one related to physical assault and one related to sexual assault.
They were asked to rate the scenarios on a scale of zero to 10 of the likelihood that they would commit the act.
They also rated on the same scale how morally wrong they felt the scenarios were.
Those who received the prefrontal cortex stimulation lowered their intent to commit physical and sexual assault by 47 and 70 percent, respectively, and were more likely to judge aggressive acts as morally wrong.
‘We were surprised we were getting more than 50 percent function in a decreased intent to commit a violent act,’ Dr Raine said.
‘We had thought we would get effects – maybe 15 or 20 percent – but not this strong.’
The study comes in the midst of the #MeToo movement, in which exposed sexual offenders such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey claimed they were going to receive treatment for sexual addiction.
The claims raised skepticism among critics who wondered if there is a treatment for an act such as sexual misconduct.
The team says that this biological intervention could, in theory, either be implemented separately or with psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help reduce violent behavior.
‘All of our intents to treat violence have been very social,’ said Dr Raine.
‘We don’t want our study to say social is not important. Racial discrimination, socioeconomic status also have a role in violent behavior.
‘But there is biological side of the crime-causation equation, and for many years we’ve ignored it.’
The researchers agree that the study needs to be replicated, but they are hopeful the stimulation will be a new form of treatment.
‘We want to know, in accordance to ongoing interventions, can we add brain stimulation?’ Dr Raine said.
‘Or can we offer it as an intervention technique for first-time offenders to reduce their likelihood of recommitting a violent act?’