Pathological rage can be blocked in mice, researchers have found, suggesting potential new treatments for anger management, aggression and hostile overreactions to stress.
In a study appearing this week in TheJournal of Neuroscience, researchers from USC and Italy identify a critical neurological factor in aggression: a brain receptor that malfunctions in overly hostile mice. When the researchers shut down the brain receptor, which also exists in humans, the excess aggression disappeared.
The findings are a significant breakthrough in developing drug targets for pathological aggression, a component in Alzheimer's disease, autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, among other common psychological disorders.
"From a clinical and social point of view, reactive aggression is absolutely a major problem," said Marco Bortolato, lead author of the study. "We want to find the tools that might reduce impulsive violence."
A large body of independent research, including past work by Bortolato and senior author Jean Shih, has identified a specific genetic predisposition to pathological aggression: low levels of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAO A). Both male humans and mice with congenital deficiency of the enzyme respond violently in response to stress.
"The same type of mutation that we study in mice is associated with criminal, very violent behavior in humans," Bortolato said. "But we really didn't understand why that it is."
Bortolato and Shih worked backwards to replicate elements of human pathological aggression in mice - including not just low enzyme levels but also the interaction of genetics with early stressful events, such as trauma and neglect during childhood.
"Low levels of MAO A are one basis of the predisposition to aggression in humans. The other is an encounter with maltreatment, and the combination of the two factors appears to be deadly: It results consistently in violence in adults," Bortolato said.
The researchers showed that in excessively aggressive rodents lacking MAO A, high levels of electrical stimulus are required to activate a specific brain receptor in the pre-frontal cortex. Even when this brain receptor does work, it stays active only for short periods.
"The fact that blocking this receptor moderates aggression is why this discovery has so much potential. It may have important applications in therapy," Bortolato said. "Whatever the ways environment can persistently affect behavior -- and even personality over the long term -- behavior is ultimately supported by biological mechanisms."
The researchers are now studying the potential side effects of drugs that reduce the activity of this receptor.
"Aggressive behaviors have a profound socioeconomic impact, yet current strategies to reduce these staggering behaviors are extremely unsatisfactory," Bortolato said. "Our challenge now is to understand what pharmacological tools and what therapeutic regimens should be administered to stabilize the deficits of this receptor. If we can manage that, this could truly be an important finding."