Vol. 8, No. 2, 2002 Page 7

Domestic violence, autonomic dysregulation linked

Faulty nervous system regulation may play a role in domestic violence, according to a new study by John Umhau et al.

The researchers studied 16 perpetrators of domestic violence, comparing them to a control group of healthy volunteers and a second control group of nonviolent alcoholics. The participants were asked to go from bed rest to standing quietly for five minutes—an act that alters heart rate and vagal nerve activity.

After the standing period, all participants exhibited significant increases in heart rate and decreases in vagal nerve activity. In the healthy volunteers, and to a lesser degree in the nonviolent alcoholics, minute-by-minute changes in vagal nerve activity predicted changes in heart rate. This correlation, however, was not seen in the violent men.

Umhau et al. theorize that the faulty heart rate regulation seen in the abusive individuals in this study may extend to other biological functions involved in the expression of emotion and rage. "Future studies may confirm that altered heart regulation provides a measurable index of autonomic dysregulation," they say, "which, in turn, may be found to affect the perpetrators' ability to modulate emotion and to control aggression."


"Some domestic abusers may have faulty mechanism for controlling aggression," press release, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, February 15, 2002.

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