'Roid rage in rats? Testosterone effects on aggressive motivation, impulsivity and tyrosine hydroxylase

Physiol Behav. 2013 Feb 17;110-111:6-12. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.12.005. Epub 2012 Dec 22.


In humans and animals, anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) increase aggression, but the underlying behavioral mechanisms are unclear. AAS may increase the motivation to fight. Alternatively, AAS may increase impulsive behavior, consistent with the popular image of 'roid rage. To test this, adolescent male rats were treated chronically with testosterone (7.5mg/kg) or vehicle and tested for aggressive motivation and impulsivity. Rats were trained to respond on a nose-poke on a 10 min fixed-interval schedule for the opportunity to fight in their home cage with an unfamiliar rat. Although testosterone increased aggression (6.3±1.3 fights/5 min vs 2.4±0.8 for controls, p<0.05), there was no difference in operant responding (28.4±1.6 nose-pokes/10 min for testosterone, 32.4±7.0 for vehicle). This suggests that testosterone does not enhance motivation for aggression. To test for impulsivity, rats were trained to respond for food in a delay-discounting procedure. In an operant chamber, one lever delivered one food pellet immediately, the other lever gave 4 pellets after a delay (0, 15, 30 or 45 s). In testosterone- and vehicle-treated rats, body weights and food intake did not differ. However, testosterone-treated rats chose the larger, delayed reward more often (4.5±0.7 times in 10 trials with 45 s delay) than vehicle controls (2.5±0.5 times, p<0.05), consistent with a reduction in impulsive choice. Thus, although chronic high-dose testosterone enhances aggression, this does not include an increase in impulsive behavior or motivation to fight. This is further supported by measurement of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) by Western immunoblot analysis in brain regions important for motivation (nucleus accumbens, Acb) and executive function (medial prefrontal cortex, PFC). There were no differences in TH between testosterone- and vehicle-treated rats in Acb or PFC. However, testosterone significantly reduced TH (to 76.9±3.1% of controls, p<0.05) in the caudate-putamen, a brain area important for behavioral inhibition, motor control and habit learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / drug effects*
  • Agonistic Behavior / drug effects
  • Animals
  • Blotting, Western
  • Body Weight / drug effects
  • Brain / enzymology
  • Brain Chemistry / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Operant / drug effects
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Eating / drug effects
  • Impulsive Behavior / chemically induced*
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology*
  • Male
  • Motivation / drug effects*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / drug effects
  • Nucleus Accumbens / enzymology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / metabolism
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / enzymology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Reward
  • Testosterone / pharmacology*
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism*


  • Testosterone
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine