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The Neurobiology of Aggression and Violence at First Psychology Lecture

On Friday, Sep. 28, students and staff attended the first lecture of the year for the psychology department, titled “Neurobiology of Aggression and Violence, the Importance of Heterogeneity to Development, Diagnosis,Treatment and Prevention.” The presentation was given by Dr. Stuart F. White, a visiting neurologist from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH).

White began the lecture by describing and defining aggression, giving examples from humorous YouTube videos and scenarios. He explained how aggression is caused, highlighting the parts of the brain that respond to threats, based off of research on animals. There are a few systems in the brain that work together to create a response when a person feels threatened; one being the amygdala where emotional reactions are processed, the other being the prefrontal cortex, where we weigh the risks and benefits and make decisions.

“Generally speaking, in most people, these two systems work quite well together,” White said, in reference to how it is natural to react when threatened. “It clearly has an adaptive component. We’re going to talk about what happens when those systems go wrong.”

White went onto describe two types of aggression. The first type is Reactive Aggression, which is responsive to threat, motivated by emotion, and has no premeditation. This type of aggression is based on the survival component. Instrumental Aggression is goal driven, involves some forethought and is largely influenced by the cortical regions. Studies have shown that these systems can happen simultaneously and are independent of one another.

“Without appropriate reaction to fear, we are getting insufficient reinforcement and learning in terms of socialization,” White said. “That’s what allows people to be instrumentally aggressive.”

He then focused on the development of antisocial behavior and violence, which is caused by a variety of factors. Antisocial behavior rapidly increases at about twelve years of age and peaks at about fifteen, declining again at twenty. White mentioned that eighty percent of adolescents perform some sort of antisocial behavior, asking the audience to recall any “bad behavior” they may have exhibited at the age of fifteen.

The majority of the rest of the lecture focused on types of aggression disorders, including Childhood Onset Conduct Disorder and Adolescent Onset Conduct Disorder, and Conduct Disorder with Callous Unemotional Traits. According to White, the disorder in adolescence is not psychopathology the way most think of it, and is likely to have the most treatment response.

However, his main focus was on children with Conduct Disorder with Callous Unemotional Traits. In order to be diagnosed, the children must meet the full criteria for Conduct Disorder as well as at least two of the following over a twelve month period: lack of response or guilt, callous lack of empathy, unconcerned about performance (but completely capable), and others.

These individuals are likely to be manipulative and violent, and were not necessarily affected by environmental factors or parenting, although genetics play a large role. These children were the only group to show high levels of Instrumental Aggression and exhibited emotional deficits (did not respond to aggression, fear, etc.). According to White, these children have cognitive deficits as well, where in they have great at acquisition learning, but not reversal learning, which indicates a problem in decision making. The concern is that left unattended, this disorder is correlated to psychopathy in adulthood.

White concluded the lecture with suggested treatment and prevention methods, and discussed the importance of appropriate diagnosis.

“What you call things actually matters because what you call them reflects how you think about them,” White said. “How you think about these things in term of diagnosis can really affect treatment and prevention. My goal is to get you all thinking about neurobiology when making these decisions. Neurobiology should inform diagnosis, informed diagnosis should inform treatment, treatment can and should then re-inform neurobiology”.

It has been found that behavioral management programs are not effective when treating this disorder, however intensive corrections based treatment have resulted in reduction of violence.

“It was really cool to see someone put all that together” said Professor of Psychology, Eric Hiris. “I hope the student got a lot out of it because it really was an integration of fields in psychology.”

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