Neural mechanisms of aggression across species

Abstract

Aggression is a social behavior essential for securing resources and defending oneself and family. Thanks to its indispensable function in competition and thus survival, aggression exists widely across animal species, including humans. Classical works from Tinbergen and Lorenz concluded that instinctive behaviors including aggression are mediated by hardwired brain circuitries that specialize in processing certain sensory inputs to trigger stereotyped motor outputs. They further suggest that instinctive behaviors are influenced by an animal’s internal state and past experiences. Following this conceptual framework, here we review our current understanding regarding the neural substrates underlying aggression generation, highlighting an evolutionarily conserved ‘core aggression circuit’ composed of four subcortical regions. We further discuss the neural mechanisms that support changes in aggression based on the animal’s internal state. We aim to provide an overview of features of aggression and the relevant neural substrates across species, highlighting findings in rodents, primates and songbirds.

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Fig. 1: A common process that generates aggression in mice, songbirds and humans.
Fig. 2: Neuroanatomical pathways of aggression in mice.
Fig. 3: Neuroanatomical pathway of aggression in songbirds.
Fig. 4: Neuroanatomical pathways of aggression in human primates.
Fig. 5: Direct and indirect pathways for aggressive motor outputs.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank V. Diaz for editing the manuscript. The authors also thank M. Long and E. Jarvis for their helpful comments regarding songbird brain anatomy. The authors apologize to all authors whose primary research papers could not be cited due to the limit on reference number. This work was supported by a Leon Levy Fellowship (J.E.L); the Irma T. Hirschl Trust (D.L.); and NIMH R01MH101377, R21MH105774 and 1U19NS107616-01 (to D.L.).

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D.L. wrote the manuscript and edited figures. J.E.L. co-wrote the manuscript and made the figures.

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Correspondence to Dayu Lin.

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Lischinsky, J.E., Lin, D. Neural mechanisms of aggression across species. Nat Neurosci (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-020-00715-2

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