A neural network for intermale aggression to establish social hierarchy

Nat Neurosci. 2018 Jun;21(6):834-842. doi: 10.1038/s41593-018-0153-x. Epub 2018 May 25.


Intermale aggression is used to establish social rank. Several neuronal populations have been implicated in aggression, but the circuit mechanisms that shape this innate behavior and coordinate its different components (including attack execution and reward) remain elusive. We show that dopamine transporter-expressing neurons in the hypothalamic ventral premammillary nucleus (PMvDAT neurons) organize goal-oriented aggression in male mice. Activation of PMvDAT neurons triggers attack behavior; silencing these neurons interrupts attacks. Regenerative PMvDAT membrane conductances interacting with recurrent and reciprocal excitation explain how a brief trigger can elicit a long-lasting response (hysteresis). PMvDAT projections to the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamic and the supramammillary nuclei control attack execution and aggression reward, respectively. Brief manipulation of PMvDAT activity switched the dominance relationship between males, an effect persisting for weeks. These results identify a network structure anchored in PMvDAT neurons that organizes aggressive behavior and, as a consequence, determines intermale hierarchy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Cocaine / pharmacology
  • Conditioning, Operant / drug effects
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology
  • Glutamic Acid / physiology
  • Hierarchy, Social*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neural Conduction / physiology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Optogenetics
  • Reward
  • Ventromedial Hypothalamic Nucleus / cytology
  • Ventromedial Hypothalamic Nucleus / metabolism


  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Cocaine