Study supported by the VCU Wright Center discovers unique brain signature of intimate partner aggression

Why do people hurt the ones they claim to love? That question has driven researchers to discover much about the psychological and sociological predictors and consequences of intimate partner aggression. But an understanding of the neurobiological causes — or what happens in the brain — remains incomplete.

A new study led by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain activity of 51 male-female romantic couples as they experienced intimate partner aggression in real time.

They found that aggression toward intimate partners was associated with aberrant activity in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, which has many functions, but among them is the ability to foster perceptions of closeness with and value of other people.

“We found that aggression towards intimate partners has a unique signature in the brain,” said lead author David Chester, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “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 research was led by Chester’s Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab, which seeks to understand the psychological and biological processes that motivate and constrain aggressive behavior. The study, “Neural Mechanisms of Intimate Partner Aggression,” will be published in the journal Biological Psychology.

The collection of pilot data for Chester's study was supported by a VCU Wright Center Pilot Imaging Fund Grant through the NIH's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. To do the research, Chester uses the Wright Center's Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging (CARI) Center, which houses 6,000 square feet of research space including a research-dedicated Philips Ingenia 3.0 Tesla MRI Scanner. 

Chester later earned a K01 Mentored Research Scientist Development Award from the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to support this work.

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