The neurobiological basis of human aggression: A review on genetic and epigenetic mechanisms

Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2016 Jul;171(5):650-75. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.b.32388. Epub 2015 Oct 22.


Aggression is an evolutionary conserved behavior present in most species including humans. Inadequate aggression can lead to long-term detrimental personal and societal effects. Here, we differentiate between proactive and reactive forms of aggression and review the genetic determinants of it. Heritability estimates of aggression in general vary between studies due to differing assessment instruments for aggressive behavior (AB) as well as age and gender of study participants. In addition, especially non-shared environmental factors shape AB. Current hypotheses suggest that environmental effects such as early life stress or chronic psychosocial risk factors (e.g., maltreatment) and variation in genes related to neuroendocrine, dopaminergic as well as serotonergic systems increase the risk to develop AB. In this review, we summarize the current knowledge of the genetics of human aggression based on twin studies, genetic association studies, animal models, and epigenetic analyses with the aim to differentiate between mechanisms associated with proactive or reactive aggression. We hypothesize that from a genetic perspective, the aminergic systems are likely to regulate both reactive and proactive aggression, whereas the endocrine pathways seem to be more involved in regulation of reactive aggression through modulation of impulsivity. Epigenetic studies on aggression have associated non-genetic risk factors with modifications of the stress response and the immune system. Finally, we point to the urgent need for further genome-wide analyses and the integration of genetic and epigenetic information to understand individual differences in reactive and proactive AB. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: aggression; animal models; epigenetics; genetic association studies.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Dopamine
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genetic Association Studies
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods
  • Humans
  • Neuroendocrine Cells
  • Risk Factors
  • Serotonin
  • Social Behavior


  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine