Nash Family Department of Neuroscience
Brain-Body Research Center of the Friedman Brain Institute
New York, NY
Aggression is a necessary, adaptive component of social behavior, however, it can become escalated and may threaten lives, increase the risk of developing psychiatric disease in victims, and incur tremendous economic burdens on society. Despite the fact that aggression can have such dramatic effects on the health and well-being of our society, we have very few treatments, owing to our still limited understanding of the neural circuit mechanisms driving aggression. Here we take an unbiased computational approach to identify novel circuit mechanisms of aggression. Using an iDISCO+ tissue clearing method, we broadly assessed cFos expression—an immediate early gene (IEG) induced by neural activity—across the entire brain in order to identify brain regions differentially activated following aggressive versus non-aggressive social interaction. We assessed cFos in ~500 brain regions—registered to the Allen brain atlas—simultaneously and examined interactions across brain regions by generating co-expression networks with weighted correlation network analysis (WCNA), a widely used data mining method for studying biological networks based on pairwise correlations between variables. In this case we examined correlations between cFos expression in brain regions and ranked the correlations based on the strength of the correlation and the number of total connections. One of the most strongly interconnected networks was within the amygdala, which is made up of a highly heterogenous cluster of brain regions and cells types that perform a diverse range of functions from controlling anxiety and fear to social behavior and reward. Using advanced Ca2+ imaging and chemogenetics, we found that activation of Esr1 glutamatergic neurons in the COAp of males during aggression was necessary for aggressive behavior. Chemogenetic inhibition of these cells increased pro-social investigation during the resident intruder (RI) test, however, it did not occlude pro-social reward/reinforcement behavior. Together, our data suggests that the COAp may serve as an important switch to control the motivation to engage in pro- versus aggressive-social behavior.