Background: Recent studies show that changes in one of the brain areas related to empathic abilities (i.e. the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)) plays an important role in violent behavior in abusers of alcohol and cocaine. According to the models of James Blair, empathy is a potential inhibitor of violent behavior. Individuals with less empathic abilities may be less susceptible and motivated to inhibit violent behavior, which causes a higher risk of violence. Recent neuroscientific research shows that modulating (stimulation or inhibition) certain brain areas could be a promising new intervention for substance abuse and to reduce violent behavior, such as the neurostimulation technique transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This study aims to investigate tDCS as an intervention to increase empathic abilities and reduce violent behavior in forensic substance use offenders.

Methods/design: A total sample of 50 male forensic substance abuse patients (25 active and 25 sham stimulation) will be tested in a double-blind placebo-controlled study, from which half of the patients will receive an active stimulation plus treatment as usual (TAU) and the other half will receive sham stimulation (placebo) plus TAU. The patients in the active condition will receive multichannel tDCS targeting the bilateral vmPFC two times a day for 20 min for five consecutive days. Before and after the stimulation period, the patients will complete self-report measurements, perform the Point Subtraction Aggression Paradigm (PSAP) and a passive viewing empathy task. Resting state electroencephalography (rsEEG) will be performed before and after the treatment period. A follow up will be conducted after 6 months. The primary outcome is to investigate multichannel tDCS as a new intervention to increase empathic abilities and reduce violent behavior in offenders with substance abuse problems. In addition, we will determine whether electrophysiological responses in the brain are affected by the tDCS intervention. Finally, the effects of tDCS on reducing craving will be investigated.

Discussion: This study is one of the first studies using multichannel tDCS targeting the vmPFC in a forensic sample. This study will explore the opportunities to introduce a new intervention to improve empathic abilities and reduce violence in forensic substance use offenders. Specifically, this study may give insight into how to implement the tDCS intervention in the setting of daily clinical practice in this complex, multiple-problem target group and with that contribute to reduction of recidivism.

Trial registration: Dutch Trial Register, NTR7701. Registered on 12 January 2019. Prospectively registered before the recruitment phase. Recruitment started on the 1st of February 2019 and will be finished approximately in the winter of 2019. Protocol version 1. 22 May 2019.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), Empathy, Violent behavior, Substance use, Forensic, offenders, Recidivism, Effectiveness, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC),
Department of Psychology

Sergiou, C.S, Woods, A, Franken, I.H.A, & van Dongen, J.D.M. (2020). Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as an intervention to improve empathic abilities and reduce violent behavior in forensic offenders: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 21:263. doi:10.1186/s13063-020-4074-0