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Published June 15, 2012 | Accepted Version
Journal Article Open

Optogenetics, Sex, and Violence in the Brain: Implications for Psychiatry


Pathological aggression and the inability to control aggressive impulses takes a tremendous toll on society. Yet aggression is a normal component of the innate behavior repertoire of most vertebrate animal species as well as of many invertebrates. Progress in understanding the etiology of disorders of aggressive behavior, whether genetic or environmental in nature, therefore requires an understanding of the brain circuitry that controls normal aggression. Efforts to understand this circuitry at the level of specific neuronal populations have been constrained by the limited resolution of classical methodologies, such as electrical stimulation and electrolytic lesion. The availability of new, genetically based tools for mapping and manipulating neural circuits at the level of specific, genetically defined neuronal subtypes provides an opportunity to investigate the functional organization of aggression circuitry with cellular resolution. However, these technologies are optimally applied in the mouse, where there has been surprisingly little traditional work on the functional neuroanatomy of aggression. Here we discuss recent, initial efforts to apply optogenetics and other state-of-the-art methods to the dissection of aggression circuitry in the mouse. We find, surprisingly, that neurons necessary and sufficient for inter-male aggression are located within the ventrolateral subdivision of the ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus, a structure traditionally associated with reproductive behavior. These neurons are intermingled with neurons activated during male–female mating, with approximately 20% overlap between the populations. We discuss the significance of these findings with respect to neuroethological and neuroanatomical perspectives on the functional organization of innate behaviors and their potential implications for psychiatry.

Additional Information

© 2012 Society of Biological Psychiatry. Received Jul 29, 2011; revised and accepted Nov 18, 2011. This work was supported by grants from the Weston-Havens Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The author is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

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