Bruce Banner take note: Researchers at the University of Southern California and Italy have successfully identified a critical neurological factor in aggression. By studying overly hostile mice, they located a malfunctioning brain receptor — and by turning it off, they were able to calm the mice down. The discovery could have implications for people who suffer from pathological aggression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
How soon before there's a pill to "turn off" your rage?
As we've reported before, scientists are currently working on a pill to make you fearless, and one to help you erase painful memories. There's even a pill in the works that could help you save your marriage. So why not a pill to make you less hostile?
This is the thinking of Marco Bortolato, lead author of the study which recently appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience. "From a clinical and social point of view, reactive aggression is absolutely a major problem," he said through a release. "We want to find the tools that might reduce impulsive violence."
His team was able to identify a specific genetic predisposition to pathological aggression: low levels of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAO A). Both male humans and mice with a congenital deficiency of this particular enzyme were shown to respond poorly to stress, as characterized by such behavior as sudden violence, explosive outbursts, and hostile overreactions.
The researchers started out by trying to create mice who felt something comparable to human rage. They accomplished this in two ways: adjusting for low enzyme levels, and also instigating stressful events like trauma and neglect during childhood. They discovered that this double-whammy, that of low levels of MAO A and childhood maltreatment, produces the characteristics consistent with pathological rage.
The good news is that, even if a mouse or human had a poor upbringing, the receptor that moderates aggression can still be blocked, thus adjusting behavior. As Bortolato notes, "Whatever the ways environment can persistently affect behavior - and even personality over the long term - behavior is ultimately supported by biological mechanisms."
And this is why the researchers are hopeful that their breakthrough could eventually be applied to therapy. They suspect that their insights could result in therapies for people with Alzheimer's disease, autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.