Neurobiology of aggression and violence

Am J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr;165(4):429-42. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.07111774. Epub 2008 Mar 17.


Acts of violence account for an estimated 1.43 million deaths worldwide annually. While violence can occur in many contexts, individual acts of aggression account for the majority of instances. In some individuals, repetitive acts of aggression are grounded in an underlying neurobiological susceptibility that is just beginning to be understood. The failure of "top-down" control systems in the prefrontal cortex to modulate aggressive acts that are triggered by anger provoking stimuli appears to play an important role. An imbalance between prefrontal regulatory influences and hyper-responsivity of the amygdala and other limbic regions involved in affective evaluation are implicated. Insufficient serotonergic facilitation of "top-down" control, excessive catecholaminergic stimulation, and subcortical imbalances of glutamatergic/gabaminergic systems as well as pathology in neuropeptide systems involved in the regulation of affiliative behavior may contribute to abnormalities in this circuitry. Thus, pharmacological interventions such as mood stabilizers, which dampen limbic irritability, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which may enhance "top-down" control, as well as psychosocial interventions to develop alternative coping skills and reinforce reflective delays may be therapeutic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / classification
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Disease Susceptibility / physiopathology
  • Kindling, Neurologic / physiology
  • Limbic System / physiopathology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Violence / psychology
  • Violence / statistics & numerical data*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents