The Genetics of Human Aggressive Behaviour


Both genes and environment contribute to individual differences in aggression. Surveys of the pathways implicated in the physiological and neuronal processes involved highlight the potential role of genes regulating sexual differentiation, anxiety, stress response and neurotransmission. To date, however, association studies have provided little evidence of a substantially significant role for any single candidate gene in such pathways. This may be because genes function against a background in which other genetic and environmental factors are crucial. A series of recent studies, particularly concentrating on monoamine oxidase A, has emphasised the necessity of examining gene by environmental interactions if the contributions of individual loci are to be understood. These findings have major significance for the interpretation of data, both from individual gene and whole genome association studies. Functional imaging studies of genetic variants affecting serotonin pathways have also provided valuable insights into potential links between genes, brain and aggressive behaviour.

Key Concepts:

  • Aggression is an evolutionarily advantageous trait with input from one of the most primitive brain regions, the amygdala.

  • There is significant disparity between aggressive behaviour in males and females.

  • Genes and environment both influence aggressive behaviour and there is evidence that stressful life events can interact with specific genetic variants.

  • DBH, COMT, adrenergic receptors, NET1 and SLC6A2 have been studied as possible candidate genes linking stress and aggression.

  • In the serotonin system, genetic polymorphisms in MAOA, SLC6A4, TPH1/2 and the serotonin receptor genes have been linked with aggression.

  • Studies have shown a potential link between diet and its effects (e.g. on glucose levels) and aggression.

  • Brain imaging studies are beginning to assist an interpretation of the links between genetic variation and aggression.

Keywords: aggression; stress; gene–environment interactions; monoamine oxidase; serotonin; sex differences; brain imaging; violence

Figure 1.

Stress results in production of glucocorticoid hormones via the HPA axis. Under normal conditions, there is a regulating feedback controlling levels; however, prolonged stress may result in dysregulation of this circuitry and a potential inability to deal with stressors. ACTH, adrenocorticotropic hormone; GR, glucocorticoid receptor; CRH, corticotropin releasing hormone; DBH, dopamine b‐hydroxylase; DDC, DOPA decarboxylase; NET1, norepinephrine transporter; PAH, phenylalanine hydroxylase; PNMT, phenylethanolamine N‐methyl transferase and TH, tyrosine hydroxylase.

Figure 2.

A diagrammatic representation of distribution of serotonin auto‐ and heteroreceptors. Serotonin neurotransmitter; postsynaptic receptors including HTR 1A, 1E, 1F, 2A, 2C and 4–7; serotonin transporter, SERT.



Alia‐Klein N, Goldstein RZ, Tomasi D et al. (2009) Neural mechanisms of anger regulation as a function of genetic risk for violence. Emotion 9: 385–396.

Birger M, Swartz M, Cohen D et al. (2003) Aggression: the testosterone–serotonin link. Israel Medical Association Journal 5: 653–658.

Book AS, Starzyk KB and Quinsey VL (2001) The relationship between testosterone and aggression: a meta‐analysis. Aggression and Violent Behavior 6: 579–599.

Brodkin ES, Goforth SA, Keene AH, Fossella JA and Silver LM (2002) Identification of quantitative trait loci that affect aggressive behavior in mice. Journal of Neuroscience 22: 1165–1170.

Buckholtz JW and Meyer‐Lindenberg A (2008) MAOA and the neurogenetic architecture of human aggression. Trends in Neurosciences 31: 120–129.

Caramaschi D, de Boer SF and Koolhaas JM (2007) Differential role of the 5‐HT1A receptor in aggressive and non‐aggressive mice: an across‐strain comparison. Physiology and Behavior 90: 590–601.

Caspi A, McClay J, Moffitt TE et al. (2002) Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science 297: 851–854.

Cirulli ET and Goldstein DB (2007) In vitro assays fail to predict in vivo effects of regulatory polymorphisms. Human Molecular Genetics 16: 1931–1939.

Coccaro EF, Kavoussi RJ, Hauger RL, Cooper TB and Ferris CF (1998) Cerebrospinal fluid vasopressin levels: correlates with aggression and serotonin function in personality‐disordered subjects. Archives of General Psychiatry 55: 708–714.

Coccaro EF, Kavoussi RJ, Trestman RL et al. (1997) Serotonin function in human subjects: intercorrelations among central 5‐HT indices and aggressiveness. Psychiatry Research 73: 1–14.

Craig IW (2007) The importance of stress and genetic variation in human aggression. BioEssays 29: 227–236.

D'Souza UM and Craig IW (2008) Functional genetic polymorphisms in serotonin and dopamine gene systems and their significance in behavioural disorders. Progress in Brain Research 172: 73–98.

Davidge KM, Atkinson L, Douglas L et al. (2004) Association of the serotonin transporter and 5HT1Dbeta receptor genes with extreme, persistent and pervasive aggressive behaviour in children. Psychiatric Genetics 14: 143–146.

Eisenberger NI, Way BM, Taylor SE, Welch WT and Lieberman MD (2007) Understanding genetic risk for aggression: clues from the brain's response to social exclusion. Biological Psychiatry 61: 1100–1108.

Fowler JS, Alia‐Klein N, Kriplani A et al. (2007) Evidence that brain MAO A activity does not correspond to MAO A genotype in healthy male subjects. Biological Psychiatry 62: 355–358.

Gabel S, Stadler J, Bjorn J and Shindledecker R (1995) Homovanillic acid and dopamine‐beta‐hydroxylase in male youth: relationships with paternal substance abuse and antisocial behavior. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 21: 363–378.

Gesch CB, Hammond SM, Hampson SE, Eves A and Crowder MJ (2002) Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. British Journal of Psychiatry 181: 22–28.

Gogos JA, Morgan M, Luine V et al. (1998) Catechol‐O‐methyltransferase‐deficient mice exhibit sexually dimorphic changes in catecholamine levels and behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 95: 9991–9996.

Gutknecht L, Kriegebaum C, Waider J, Schmitt A and Lesch K‐P (2009) Spatio‐temporal expression of tryptophan hydroxylase isoforms in murine and human brain: convergent data from Tph2 knockout mice. European Neuropsychopharmacology 19: 266–282.

Hennig J, Reuter M, Netter P, Burk C and Landt O (2005) Two types of aggression are differentially related to serotonergic activity and the A779C TPH polymorphism. Behavioral Neuroscience 119: 16–25.

Hess C, Reif A, Strobel A et al. (2009) A functional dopamine‐beta‐hydroxylase gene promoter polymorphism is associated with impulsive personality styles, but not with affective disorders. Journal of Neural Transmission 116: 121–130.

Jonsson EG, von Gertten C, Gustavsson JP et al. (2001) Androgen receptor trinucleotide repeat polymorphism and personality traits. Psychiatric Genetics 11: 19–23.

Kim CH, Hahn MK, Joung Y et al. (2006) A polymorphism in the norepinephrine transporter gene alters promoter activity and is associated with attention‐deficit hyperactivity disorder. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 103: 19164–19169.

Kim‐Cohen J, Caspi A, Taylor A et al. (2006) MAOA, maltreatment, and gene–environment interaction predicting children's mental health: new evidence and a meta‐analysis. Molecular Psychiatry 11: 903–913.

Kulikov AV, Osipova DV, Naumenko VS and Popova NK (2005) Association between Tph2 gene polymorphism, brain tryptophan hydroxylase activity and aggressiveness in mouse strains. Genes, Brain and Behavior 4: 482–485.

Kulikova MA, Maluchenko NV, Timofeeva MA et al. (2008) Effect of functional catechol‐O‐methyltransferase Val158Met polymorphism on physical aggression. Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine 145: 62–64.

Loney BR, Butler MA, Lima EN, Counts CA and Eckel LA (2006) The relation between salivary cortisol, callous‐unemotional traits, and conduct problems in an adolescent non‐referred sample. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47: 30–36.

Miles DR and Carey G (1997) Genetic and environmental architecture of human aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72: 207–217.

Olivier B and van Oorschot R (2005) 5‐HT1B receptors and aggression: a review. European Journal of Pharmacology 526: 207–217.

Ou XM, Chen K and Shih JC (2006) Glucocorticoid and androgen activation of monoamine oxidase A is regulated differently by R1 and Sp1. Journal of Biological Chemistry 281: 21512–21525.

Preuss UW, Koller G, Bondy B, Bahlmann M and Soyka M (2001) Impulsive traits and 5‐HT2A receptor promoter polymorphism in alcohol dependents: possible association but no influence of personality disorders. Neuropsychobiology 43: 186–191.

Prichard Z, Mackinnon A, Jorm AF and Easteal S (2008) No evidence for interaction between MAOA and childhood adversity for antisocial behavior. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics 147B: 228–232.

Rajender S, Pandu G, Sharma JD et al. (2008) Reduced CAG repeats length in androgen receptor gene is associated with violent criminal behavior. International Journal of Legal Medicine 122: 367–372.

Reif A, Jacob CP, Rujescu D et al. (2009) Influence of functional variant of neuronal nitric oxide synthase on impulsive behaviors in humans. Archives of General Psychiatry 66: 41–50.

Reif A, Rösler M, Freitag CM et al. (2007) Nature and nurture predispose to violent behavior: serotonergic genes and adverse childhood environment. Neuropsychopharmacology 32: 2375–2383.

Shirtcliff EA, Granger DA, Booth A and Johnson D (2005) Low salivary cortisol levels and externalizing behavior problems in youth. Development and Psychopathology 17: 167–184.

Siever LJ (2008) Neurobiology of aggression and violence. American Journal of Psychiatry 165: 429–442.

Silver JM, Yudofsky SC, Slater JA et al. (1999) Propranolol treatment of chronically hospitalized aggressive patients. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 11: 328–335.

Sjoberg RL, Ducci F, Barr CS et al. (2008) A non‐additive interaction of a functional MAO‐A VNTR and testosterone predicts antisocial behavior. Neuropsychopharmacology 33: 425–430.

Turner (1994) Genetic and hormonal influence on male violence. In: Archer J (ed.) Male Violence, pp. 233–252. New York: Routledge.

Virkkunen M (1986) Insulin‐secretion during the glucose‐tolerance test among habitually violent and impulsive offenders. Aggressive Behavior 12: 303–310.

Virkkunen M, Rissanen A, Naukkarinen H et al. (2007) Energy substrate: metabolism among habitually violent alcoholic offenders having antisocial personality disorder. Psychiatry Research 150: 287–295.

Wagner S, Baskaya O, Lieb K, Dahmen N and Tadic A (2009) The 5‐HTTLPR polymorphism modulates the association of serious life events (SLE) and impulsivity in patients with borderline personality disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research 43: 1067–1072.

Walther DJ and Bader M (2003) A unique central tryptophan hydroxylase isoform. Biochemical Pharmacology 66: 1673–1680.

Weder N, Yang BZ, Douglas‐Palumberi H et al. (2009) MAOA genotype, maltreatment, and aggressive behavior: the changing impact of genotype at varying levels of trauma. Biological Psychiatry 65: 417–424.

Wilson M and Daly M (1985) Competitiveness, risk‐taking, and violence – the young male syndrome. Ethology and Sociobiology 6: 59–73.

Wu MV, Manoli DS, Fraser EJ et al. (2009) Estrogen masculinizes neural pathways and sex‐specific behaviors. Cell 139: 61–72.

Yamakawa M, Fukushima A, Sakuma K, Yanagisawa Y and Kagawa Y (2005) Serotonin transporter polymorphisms affect human blood glucose control. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 334: 1165–1171.

Yu YZ and Shi JX (2009) Relationship between levels of testosterone and cortisol in saliva and aggressive behaviors of adolescents. Biomedical and Environmental Sciences 22: 44–49.

Zhang XD, Beaulieu JM, Sotnikova TD, Gainetdinov RR and Caron MG (2004) Tryptophan hydroxylase‐2 controls brain serotonin synthesis. Science 305: 217.

Further Reading

Archer J (1991) The influence of testosterone on human aggression. British Journal of Psychology 82(part 1): 1–28.

Craig I and Halton K (2009) Genetics of human aggressive behaviour. Human Genetics 126: 101–113.

Davidson RJ, Putnam KM and Larson CL (2000) Dysfunction in the neural circuitry of emotion regulation – a possible prelude to violence. Science 289: 591–594.

Lesch KP (2005) Serotonergic gene inactivation in mice: models for anxiety and aggression? Novartis Foundation Symposium 268: 111–140.

Maynard Smith J, Harper DGC and Brookfield JFY (1988) The evolution of aggression: can selection generate variability? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 319: 557–570.

Popma A, Doreleijers TA, Jansen LMC et al. (2007) The diurnal cortisol cycle in delinquent male adolescents and normal controls. Neuropsychopharmacology 32: 1622–1628.

Rhee SH and Waldman ID (2002) Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: a meta‐analysis of twin and adoption studies. Psychological Bulletin 128: 490–529.

Tremblay RE, Hartup WW and Archer J (2005) Developmental Origins of Aggression. New York: Guildford Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Craig, Ian W, and Halton, Kelly E(May 2010) The Genetics of Human Aggressive Behaviour. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022405]