A group of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University explored the neurobiological causes of intimate partner aggression. The study is published in the journal Biological Psychology.
The researchers used a series of experiments to explore brain activity in 51 heterosexual romantic couples who experienced intimate partner violence in real-time. They asked the participants to fill out a questionnaire about the frequency of experienced or executed violence.
They also recorded the couples’ brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they played a computer game against 3 people, one at a time, including their romantic partner, a close friend, and a stranger. In reality, they were playing against a computer.
At the end of the study, the participants were debriefed by the researchers to prevent elevated risk factors for intimate partner violence.
The results reveal that intimate partner aggression is linked to blunted brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) or the brain region associated with forming perceptions of people based on closeness or value. This violence also has a unique signature in the brain, frequently being influenced by the respective partner’s retaliating behavior. In fact, the researchers found that women’s intimate partner aggression is often self-defense against their male partners’ provocation.
One of the lead researchers, David Chester, elaborates, “There is something distinct happening at the neural level when people decide whether to harm their romantic partners, a process that differs in a meaningful way from decisions about whether to harm friends or strangers”.
The study is significant in its potential to help researchers create more accurate brain models and effective interventions aimed at reducing intimate partner aggression across the wide spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations.
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Chester, D. S., Martelli, A. M., West, S. J., Lasko, E. N., Brosnan, P., Makhanova, A., Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. K. (2021). Neural mechanisms of intimate partner aggression. Biological psychology, 165, 108195. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2021.108195