Nav: Home

Researchers identify marker in brain associated with aggression in children

September 26, 2018

Imagine a situation where one child is teasing another. While the child doing the teasing means it playfully, the other child views it as hostile and responds aggressively.

Behavior like this happens all the time with children, but why some react neutrally and others act aggressively is a mystery.

In a new study, a University of Iowa-led research team reports it has identified a brain marker associated with aggression in toddlers. In experiments measuring a type of brain wave in 2½ to 3½-year-old children, toddlers who had smaller spikes in the P3 brain wave when confronted with a situational change were more aggressive than children registering larger P3 brain-wave peaks, research showed.

The results could lead to identifying at an earlier stage children who are at risk of aggressive behavior and could help stem those impulses before adolescence, an age at which research has shown aggressive behavior is more difficult to treat.

"There are all kinds of ambiguous social cues in our environment," says Isaac Petersen, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the UI and corresponding author on the study. "And, when children aren't able to detect a change in social cues, they may be more likely to misinterpret that social cue as hostile rather than playful.

"Children respond to the same social cues in different ways, and we think it's due to differences in how they interpret that cue, be it neutral or hostile," Petersen says.

The P3 wave is part of a series of brain waves generated when an individual evaluates and responds to a change in the environment--such as changed cues in a social interaction. Previous research, primarily in adults, has shown individuals with shorter P3-wave peaks when confronted with a change in the environment tend to be more aggressive. As such, scientists believe P3 is a key indicator of aggression, as well as associated with depression and schizophrenia.

To tease out those differences in children, the researchers recruited 153 toddlers and, in individual sessions, outfitted each with a net of head sensors that measured brain-wave activity while a steady stream of tones sounded in the room. As the children watched silent cartoons on a television screen, the pitch of the tones changed, and the researchers measured the P3 brain wave accompanying each change in pitch.

The change in pitch is analogous to a change in a social interaction, in which the brain--consciously or subconsciously--reacts to a change in the environment. In this case, it was the change in pitch.

Toddlers with a shorter peak in the P3 brain wave accompanying the tone change were rated by their parents as more aggressive than children with more pronounced P3 spikes.

The difference in P3 peaks in aggressive and non-aggressive children "was statistically significant," Petersen says, and the effect was the same for boys and girls.

"Their brains are less successful at detecting changes in the environment," Petersen says of the children with shorter P3 brain-wave peaks. "And, because they're less able to detect change in the environment, they may be more likely to misinterpret ambiguous social information as hostile, leading them to react aggressively. This is our hypothesis, but it's important to note there are other possibilities that may explain aggression that future research should examine."

The researchers tested the same children at 30, 36, and 42 months of age to further explore the association with the P3 brain wave and aggression.

"This brain marker has not been widely studied in children and never studied in early childhood in relation to aggression," says Petersen, who has an appointment in the Iowa Neuroscience Institute. "It might be one of a host of tools that can be used in the future to detect aggression risk that might not show up on a behavioral screening."

The research is important because early interventions are more effective for stemming aggression, says Petersen, who is a clinical psychologist.

"Evidence suggests that early interventions and preventive approaches are more effective for reducing aggression than interventions that target aggression later in childhood or in adolescence when the behavior is more ingrained and stable," he says.

The paper was published Sept. 26 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. It is titled "A longitudinal, within-person investigation of the association between the P3 ERP component and externalizing behavior problems in young children."

The children were tested at Indiana University-Bloomington. Contributing authors at Indiana University include Caroline Hoyniak and John Bates. Angela Staples at Eastern Michigan University and Dennis Molfese at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also are contributing authors.
-end-
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded the research. Additional funding came from the National Institute of Mental Health, through a National Service Research Award to Petersen, and from the U.S. National Science Foundation, through a Graduate Research Fellowship to Hoyniak.

University of Iowa

Related Brain Articles:

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.
An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.
Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.
Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.
Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.
BRAIN Initiative tool may transform how scientists study brain structure and function
Researchers have developed a high-tech support system that can keep a large mammalian brain from rapidly decomposing in the hours after death, enabling study of certain molecular and cellular functions.
Wiring diagram of the brain provides a clearer picture of brain scan data
In a study published today in the journal BRAIN, neuroscientists led by Michael D.
Blue Brain Project releases first-ever digital 3D brain cell atlas
The Blue Brain Cell Atlas is like ''going from hand-drawn maps to Google Earth'' -- providing previously unavailable information on major cell types, numbers and positions in all 737 brain regions.
Landmark study reveals no benefit to costly and risky brain cooling after brain injury
A landmark study, led by Monash University researchers, has definitively found that the practice of cooling the body and brain in patients who have recently received a severe traumatic brain injury, has no impact on the patient's long-term outcome.
More Brain News and Brain Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Processing The Pandemic
Between the pandemic and America's reckoning with racism and police brutality, many of us are anxious, angry, and depressed. This hour, TED Fellow and writer Laurel Braitman helps us process it all.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Invisible Allies
As scientists have been scrambling to find new and better ways to treat covid-19, they've come across some unexpected allies. Invisible and primordial, these protectors have been with us all along. And they just might help us to better weather this viral storm. To kick things off, we travel through time from a homeless shelter to a military hospital, pondering the pandemic-fighting power of the sun. And then, we dive deep into the periodic table to look at how a simple element might actually be a microbe's biggest foe. This episode was reported by Simon Adler and Molly Webster, and produced by Annie McEwen and Pat Walters. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.