Can we rid ourselves of the meaningless violence and aggression seen in society today? A news story in Nature News this week shows that aggressiveness may be treated with a serotonin-acting ligand. At least in rats, but nevertheless the study holds the promise for human treatment as well. Serotonin levels are known to be associated with aggression. The lower the serotonin level, the more aggression. So what dd the present study find?
The team engendered violent characteristics by introducing feeble intruder rats that were bound to lose battles, each day for two or three weeks. After repeated victories over other rats, the test animals began to behave in a more pathologically violent manner, fighting all-comers more brutally — including weak females and senseless males which presented no threat to them.
Then the researchers looked at levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the rats’ brains. Although brain levels of serotonin don’t change in rats as a result of normal, ‘appropriate’ acts of aggression, the team found that these levels did sink in his pathologically aggressive rats.
So this is more or less a replication and strengthening of previous research, only this model seems to have additional advantages. But the big news came when the team tried to manipulate the serotonin levels in the rats. Here, they found that…
(…) they could alter the aggressive behaviour of their rats by manipulating the serotonin system. They gave the rats S-15535, a compound that binds exclusively to a neuron ‘autoreceptor’ that acts to dampen the serotonin system. This autoreceptor is called 5-HT1a. Binding to it seems to bring serotonin levels in the rats back to normal. When even very low doses of S-15535 were used to bind to the receptors, de Boer found that both the serotonin and the violence of the pathologically aggressive rats returned to normal levels.
Better still, the drug did not seem to affect other behaviour, and did not seem to be generally sedative. So the study suggests that (pathological) aggression might be controlled better using a serotonin-acting drug. The study described in the Nature News was headed by Sietse de Boer from the University of Groenigen. There’s also a story about de Boer study from this year’s SfN conference (I couldn’t make it there, duh), and a ScienceDaily article nicely relates this to other studies.
Of course, the ethical questions are unanswered still. Indeed, if we are able to synthesize these drugs, and they work, who should have them? Should they be forced upon a subject? And let’s make it even more edgy: should it be taken by people (men) going to football matches, and could one convict a hooligan to take a pill before attending a game? Is this the cure for domestic violence, bar fights, hooliganism?