Neurostimulation may inhibit aggressive behavior in forensic patients

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Charl Folscher
Charl Folscher

Aggression is still a major problem in society. Within forensic care, between 50 and 75% of patients with a violent crime also have an addiction background. Current treatments are not effective enough for this target group to reduce aggression and violent recidivism. It is crucial to understand which brain processes cause aggressive behavior to develop a good treatment method.

With her PhD research ’Understanding the Aggressive Brain: High-Definition transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (HD-tDCS) in reducing aggression and as a treatment intervention in forensic patients’ Carmen Sergiou has taken the first step toward better understanding which brain processes cause aggressive behavior. Her research also shows that aggressive responses are reduced and brain activity are influenced by the High-Definition transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (HD-tDCS) technique.

Reduced activity underlies aggression

Carmen Sergiou’s research is based on a literature review of brain processes underlying aggressive behavior. The relationship between empathy and aggression is crucial for inhibiting aggressive behavior. In people who exhibit aggressive behavior, a particular part of their brain, the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmpFC), appears have less activity. The study looked at the effect of the neuromodulation-technique ’High-Definition transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (HD-tDCS)’ to influence this activity. This technique can be used to influence brain activity and possibly increase empathic abilities and decrease aggression.

Decrease in aggressive responses

Fifty forensic patients were studied who had an addiction background and had committed a violent crime. Of these, 25 patients received the HD-tDCs treatment, and 25 were in the control group. The patients received 20 minutes of HD-tDCS on the vmPFC, twice a day for five consecutive days. There was a measurement moment before and after this treatment week to measure the differences. The brain activity was monitored with EEG at rest and while patients looked at pictures with aggressive or neutral social interactions. In addition, the patients filled out questionnaires. Lastly, they did an aggression task on the computer to see if they gave an aggressive response or not. The results showed that the group that received the HD-tDCs treatment showed a decrease in the number of aggressive responses and a decrease in self-reported aggression. Moreover, the study shows that brain activity can be affected by HD-tDCS on the vmPFC.

New treatment method gives hope for patients

"The research results give hope for a new complementary treatment method for lowering aggression in forensic patients. Forensic patients who also have an addiction background are often poorly motivated for treatment. They experience side effects from medication, and partly due to years of substance abuse, changes have occurred in brain activity. This treatment with HD-tDCS has no side effects, hopefully making patients more open to it again. More research is needed, but this study is a good ’proof of concept’ for the first steps into forensic care ", says Carmen Sergiou about the importance of her research.

About the research

On Thursday, May 19, Carmen Sergiou defends her dissertation ’Understanding the Aggressive Brain. High-Definition transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (HD-tDCS) in reducing aggression and as a treatment intervention in forensic patients’.

Carmen Sergiou


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