Temper they can't control

What the brain can tell us about childhood aggression.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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We all experience bursts of frustration when things don’t go as planned. For some children, these inevitable hiccups in daily life trigger extreme irritability, the I-can’t-calm-down temper tantrums that can lead to lashing out at friends or inflicting pain on themselves. For years, neuroscientists suspected this kind of extreme irritability was tied to altered brain wiring, primarily in the amygdala (the brain’s emotional center) and prefrontal cortex (the emotional regulation center). The brain’s alarm system sounds, but the off switch is faulty.  

Now, a Yale Child Study Center investigation provides a more nuanced view of how these kids’ brains may be affected. The new study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, examines the brain’s “connectome”—all its neural connections—to explore the complicated way the brain transmits messages.  

The team examined brain scans of 129 children between the ages of 8 and 16; 100 had been referred to Yale due to aggressive behavior. The rest had no history of aggression and served as controls. The children had played a game inside an fMRI imaging machine, where they were shown either calm or fearful photos of faces. (An fMRI spotlights areas where oxygen was used, which is a measure of brain activity.) Research scientist Karim Ibrahim led the investigation; the data was gleaned from a previous study by senior author Denis Sukhodolsky, an associate professor.

“The results,” says Ibrahim, “suggest a broader network dysfunction,” beyond the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. The scans showed that four neural networks are linked to the behavioral problems. One, involved in cognitive functioning, is located in the prefrontal cortex behind the forehead. Another is deep in the brain, and when the mind is wandering—in “default mode”—it’s involved in social perception. The third, involved in movement and perception, is found in the sensory motor networks that stretch across the midsection of the brain like a headband.

Sukhodolsky says the findings are an important first step that may pave a way to define these emotional issues more precisely, and in turn lead to more effective treatments. Or, as he put it, to treatments that may one day be based on “brain science rather than clinical observation.”   

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