Some individuals are abnormally aggressive. That is, they respond with disproportionate retaliation as compared to the provocation and they can escalate their behavior to violate the safety and well-being of others. The behavior is repeated over the individual’s lifespan, resulting in severe consequences for the aggressor, ranging from job loss and divorce to severe injury and jail time. The loss of occupational and social functioning in these individuals, and damage to victims, calls for the systematic study of individuals who express repeated aggression. A phenotype is a readily observable trait (e.g., brown eyes). The phenotype of aggressive behavior is also observable, though not as readily; still, teachers can point to the kids who initiated many physical fights this school year and friends know of their aggressive buddy who flew into a rage at the bar. Through interviews and tasks, we too, can identify the aggressive phenotype and our aim is to study the multiple factors that are related to this particular behavior.
The Multifactorial Nature of Problem Behaviors
This figure represents the different contributions to disorders of aggression and substance use, which we call problem behaviors since they often appear together (most violent crimes occur under the influence of substances) and result in serious public health concerns.
Developing an Inhibitory Paradigm: Just Say No?
Is it possible to just say "No" and avoid all those things we want but we know are bad for us? If it was only that simple! Studies have shown that people vary in their ability to say "No" to things they are compelled to do even if these things are damaging to them. We set out to study how the word No! is perceived by people and processed in their brain. The words No! and Yes! are involved in learning to prohibit or encourage behavior. We hypothesized that these are emotional words, and as such would activate neural circuits involved with emotional control. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to record brain activity while people were listening to these words. Results showed that No and Yes were associated with opposite brain-behavior responses; while No was perceived as a negative word, produced a slowing of behavior, and evoked a negative signal in the orbitofrontal cortex (part of the frontal cortex), the word Yes was perceived as a positive word and produced faster response times, and evoked a positive signal in the same frontal region. We also found that the more people reported controlling their anger, the more their orbitofrontal region was responsive to No (Alia-Klein et al., 2007).
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
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