Sex differences in aggression: Differential roles of 5-HT2, neuropeptide F and tachykinin

PLoS One. 2019 Jan 29;14(1):e0203980. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0203980. eCollection 2019.


Despite the conserved function of aggression across taxa in obtaining critical resources such as food and mates, serotonin's (5-HT) modulatory role on aggressive behavior appears to be largely inhibitory for vertebrates but stimulatory for invertebrates. However, critical gaps exist in our knowledge of invertebrates that need to be addressed before definitively stating opposing roles for 5-HT and aggression. Specifically, the role of 5-HT receptor subtypes are largely unknown, as is the potential interactive role of 5-HT with other neurochemical systems known to play a critical role in aggression. Similarly, the influence of these systems in driving sex differences in aggressive behavior of invertebrates is not well understood. Here, we investigated these questions by employing complementary approaches in a novel invertebrate model of aggression, the stalk-eyed fly. A combination of altered social conditions, pharmacological manipulation and 5-HT2 receptor knockdown by siRNA revealed an inhibitory role of this receptor subtype on aggression. Additionally, we provide evidence for 5-HT2's involvement in regulating neuropeptide F activity, a suspected inhibitor of aggression. However, this function appears to be stage-specific, altering only the initiation stage of aggressive conflicts. Alternatively, pharmacologically increasing systemic concentrations of 5-HT significantly elevated the expression of the neuropeptide tachykinin, which did not affect contest initiation but instead promoted escalation via production of high intensity aggressive behaviors. Notably, these effects were limited solely to males, with female aggression and neuropeptide expression remaining unaltered by any manipulation that affected 5-HT. Together, these results demonstrate a more nuanced role for 5-HT in modulating aggression in invertebrates, revealing an important interactive role with neuropeptides that is more reminiscent of vertebrates. The sex-differences described here also provide valuable insight into the evolutionary contexts of this complex behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan / administration & dosage
  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan / pharmacology
  • Aggression / drug effects
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior Observation Techniques / methods
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Diptera / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Male
  • Models, Animal
  • Neuropeptides / metabolism
  • RNA, Small Interfering / metabolism
  • Receptors, Serotonin, 5-HT2 / genetics
  • Receptors, Serotonin, 5-HT2 / metabolism
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Tachykinins / metabolism


  • Neuropeptides
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • Receptors, Serotonin, 5-HT2
  • Tachykinins
  • neuropeptide F
  • Serotonin
  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan

Grant support

This work was funded by National Science Foundation grants IOS 1256898 and 1656465 (to JGS) and IOS 1257679 (to MJW), The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.