The “hypothalamic attack area” is the aptly named part of the brain behind aggressive behavior. Everybody’s got one, even fish and reptiles. We’ve known about this region for a while now, but the cellular ringleaders have been somewhat elusive. Using finches, scientists pinned down the instigating neurons, and showed how to stop them. As it turns out, a protein that’s already been fingered in aggressive behaviors is made by neurons in the “attack area.” Better yet, when this protein’s production is shut down in finches, the birds couldn’t be provoked. The birds were still interested in social interactions and pair-bonding; their behavior was otherwise unaffected. Nor were they ignorant: they knew they were being provoked. They just weren’t motivated to do anything about it. An end to bar fights? Not yet. So far, we’re just looking in birds. But how interesting that aggressive behavior is like a switch that can be so easily flipped off.
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The attack area overlaps the anterior hypothalamus and the ventrolateral subnucleus of the ventromedial hypothalamus. A more interesting fact, perhaps, is that the hypothalamus is located just above the brainstem, and is about the size of an almond. The attack area takes up one small part of the hypothalamus.
The protein is vasoactive intestinal protein, VIP.
The scientists used antisense RNA to knockdown VIP expression in the anterior hypothalamus, and no, you can’t buy this for your aggressive house pet.
Reference: An aggression-specific cell type in the anterior hypothalamus of finches. PNAS, epub Aug 7, 2012. Goodson JL, Kelly AM, Kingsbury MA, Thompson, RR.
Image credit: sarniebill on flickr under CCL.