Are Brain Abnormalities Implicated in Interpersonal Violence? Results of an Imaging Study
The present study investigated the prevalence and nature of structural brain abnormalities (SBAs) in batterers using neuroimaging methods. The results reflect that SBAs are not strongly or specifically associated with interpersonal violence, and it is unlikely responsible for the differences in brain functioning between batterers and other offenders observed in past research. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.
Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2019, Vol. 18, No. 3, 220-227
Prevalence and Nature of Structural Brain Abnormalities in Batterers: A Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study
Natalia Bueso-Izquierdo; Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment, University of Granada, Granada, Spain; The Brain, Mind, and Behavior Research Center at University of Granada (CIMCYC-UGR), Granada, Spain
Juan Verdejo-Roman; The Brain, Mind, and Behavior Research Center at University of Granada (CIMCYC-UGR), Granada, Spain; Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Granada, Granada, Spain
Jose Pablo Martinez-Barbero; EDiNR, Neuroimaging Department, HealthTime Group, Jaen, Spain
Miguel Angel Perez-Rosillo, Radiology Department, Hospital Comarcal of Ubeda, Ubeda, Spain
Miguel Perez-Garcia; Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment, University of Granada, Granada, Spain; The Brain, Mind, and Behavior Research Center at University of Granada (CIMCYC-UGR), Granada, Spain
Natalia Hidalgo-Ruzzante; The Brain, Mind, and Behavior Research Center at University of Granada (CIMCYC-UGR), Granada, Spain; Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology, University of Granada, Grenada, Spain
Stephen D. Hart; Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada; University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
Introduction: Past research has found differences in the brain activation of batterers vs. other offenders in response to depictions of violence, but it is not known whether these functional differences are associated with structural brain abnormalities (SBAs).
Objective: Investigate the prevalence and nature of SBAs in batterers using neuroimaging methods.
Method: Two neuroradiologists independently diagnosed SBAs based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans for the 21 batterers and 20 other offenders. All participants had been screened to ensure that they had no obvious brain damage secondary to neurological injury or insult, including traumatic brain injury.
Results: One participant had both a major and minor SBA; 13 had one or more minor SBAs. Most were judged to be not clinically relevant.
Conclusion: SBAs are not strongly or specifically associated with IPV, and it is unlikely they are responsible for the differences in brain functioning between batterers and other offenders observed in past research.
Intimate partner violence; structural brain abnormalities; magnetic resonance imaging
Summary of the Research
“Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious social problem, and one that appears to reflect the influence of causal factors from biological, psychological, interpersonal, and social domains…In recent years, there has been increased focus on biological factors in IPV, and especially on neurocognitive factors…neuroscientific research may have important clinical implications for risk assessment and treatment, as well as for legal decisions about criminal responsibility or culpability…as far as we know, there are only three published studies looking specifically with IPV offenders…a group commonly referred to as batterers…” (p.220).
“In this study, we investigated the prevalence and nature of structural brain abnormalities in 21 batterers vs. 20 other offenders from Bueso-Izquierdo et al. (2016). Two neuroradiologists independently diagnosed structural brain abnormalities based on MRI scans taken as part of the original fMRI studies in which the men had participated.. If general or specific structural abnormalities are common in batterers who have exhibited functional differences-and especially [i]f the structural abnormalities are more common in batterers than in other offenders it is plausible that structural abnormalities may account for the functional differences” (p.221).
“The neuroimaging studies were classified in three categories according to their findings normal findings, findings of minor abnormalities, and findings of major abnormalities…We compared the prevalence of structural brain abnormalities, assessed by neuroradiologists based on MRI scans, in batterers versus other offenders. All participants were carefully screened to control for potential confounding factors, including brain damage secondary to neurological injury or insult. Only one participant, a batterer, was found to have both a major and minor structural abnormality, and 12 had only minor structural abnormalities. Overall, no major SBA have been found and just under half of batterers had structural brain abnormalities. Although the prevalence of minor structural brain abnormalities in batterers was significantly higher than in other offenders, all SBAs were unrelated to brain damage or TBI. Furthermore, the observed brain damage was not clinically relevant” (p.222-224).
Translating Research into Practice
“We plan to continue researching biological factors related to IPV, and we encourage others to do so. Even if these factors are related to violence generally rather than IPV specifically, understanding the nature and extent of their causal influence may assist and improve risk assessment, treatment, and even assessment of criminal culpability…Neurocognitive factors such as structural abnormalities, then, may be risk factors for violence that play a limited and contributory causal role, but are clearly neither necessary nor sufficient causes…The (potential) existence and influence of biological factors does not rob people of their capacity and responsibility to make better decisions; nor does it rob forensic mental health professionals of the capacity or responsibility to help their patents make better decisions” (p.225).
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“Our findings suggest that structural brain abnormalities, not linked to TBI, are not strongly or specifically associated with IPV. As a consequence, it is unlikely that structural abnormalities are responsible for the differences in brain functioning between batterers and other offenders…We speculate that structural brain abnormalities…may have an adverse influence on human decision making regarding whether or not to commit violence, both IPV and general violence. Specifically, they may play a general disinhibiting or destabilizing causal role. Once people have a motivation…to engage in violence, structural brain abnormalities may adversely affect the care with which they evaluate the potential negative consequences of perpetrating violence or consider and evaluate the potential positive consequences of alternatives to violence” (p.225).
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Authored By Amber Lin
Amber Lin is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.