The One Thing You Need To Know About Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Do you know someone who redefines "bad temper"? If they can't seem to control their outbursts of anger, that might b a sign of intermittent explosive disorder (IED), an impulse-control disorder characterized by uncontrollable outbursts of aggression. The disorder has been identified by psychologists in some form or another for decades, but researchers have never been able to pin down an exact cause. Like most psychological disorders, it probably results from a combination of nature and nurture, but thanks to new research, we might be one step closer to unraveling its biological factors.

But first, what is IED? Although it sounds like a fancy name for spontaneous human combustion, the "explosions" characteristic of IED are more metaphorical than literal. According to Psychology Today, the disorder involves repeated "failure to resist aggressive impulses, resulting in serious assaults or property destruction," like throwing plates or attacking someone. The key is that this aggression is totally out of proportion to whatever incident instigated it, which many people realize after their outburst has petered out.

Psychologists still aren't sure what causes it (and as always, correlation does not equal causation), but research has shown that people with psychiatric disorders often have different brain activity than healthy individuals. This led researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center to compare the brains of healthy people and those with IED, and they turned up a fascinating finding: According to their results, people with IED have weaker connections between the parts of the brain associated with language processing and social interaction.

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Their brains aren't structured differently — there's no extra lobe dedicated to pumping out aggressive hormones or anything similarly sci-fi — but the regions are simply connected in different ways from people who don't have the disorder. Specifically, the study found that the white matter of the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF), which connects the frontal and parietal lobes, was less dense and had less integrity in people with IED.

The importance of this finding lies in these lobes' functions. The parietal lobe is associated with sensory input and language processing, while the frontal lobe is highly involved in social interaction and decision-making — like the decision not to punch out the person who just rear-ended you on the highway. Furthermore, researchers described the SLF as a sort of "information superhighway" between these two lobes. This brings us to the takeaway of the study: If the SLF is weaker in people with IED, there may be a malfunction in the way social interactions are processed and interpreted in the brain.

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Unfortunately, there's no way to tell if a weaker SLF is a result or the cause of having the disorder. However, it does show serve as a reminder that the disorder is more than just a bad temper — it's a disorder with a biological basis, which means there's hope for a treatment in the future. Considering IED is often implicated in substance abuse and can be dangerous for those who know someone with the disorder, further research may save someone's life.

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