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.

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 3.

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.



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Further Reading

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

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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]