The neurobiology of impulsive aggression

Psychiatr Clin North Am. 1997 Jun;20(2):395-403. doi: 10.1016/s0193-953x(05)70319-1.


As noted previously, it is likely that the tendency to lash out verbally or physically at others is influenced by an interaction among multiple complex biologic factors. We need to investigate how these systems interact with each other to develop a more thorough understanding of the brain's influence over aggressive behavior. We are at a very early stage in our understanding of the neurobiology of aggression. There are no simple tools for studying the complex neurophysiology of the human brain. The studies cited in this article include techniques limited in their utility. As our technologies improve, discovering a more thorough picture of the brain's influence over aggressive behavior may be possible. For example, functional neuroimaging may help to localize abnormal neurotransmitter functioning in the brains of individuals with impulsive aggressive behavior. Our technologies are beginning to reveal the differential effects of subsystems of neurotransmitter regulation. Subtypes of serotonin receptors may differentially mediate impulsive aggressive behaviors. Animal studies suggest that 5-HT 1A receptor stimulation results in a decrease in aggressive behavior. As noted previously, aggressive personality-disordered patients show a blunted prolactin response to the 5-HT1A agonist buspirone. Antagonism of 5-HT 2 receptors appears to decrease aggression, and this effect may explain the ability of newer antipsychotic agents (which, unlike older antipsychotic medications, block 5-HT 2 receptors) to produce a dramatic reduction in aggression and agitation independent of effects on psychotic symptoms. Neglecting psychosocial factors in the causes of aggressive behavior would also be naive. Although environmental factors account for much of the predisposition to aggression, there have been few systematic studies to explore the relationship between life experiences and aggression. In addition, there have been no well-designed studies of the interaction between biology and an individual's environment in the genesis of aggressive behavior. There is some evidence of an association between childhood abuse and neglect and adult antisocial personality disorder, but this relationship might be merely an artifact of the genetic relationship between parental and offspring antisocial personality disorder. As we discussed in the introduction, one of the biggest hurdles in the study of the neurobiology of aggression is the lack of a consensus on definitions. "Intermittent Explosive Disorder" is the only category in DSM-IV that directly addresses individuals with problems with aggression, but the criteria are vague and only focus on a handful of the many patients who exhibit problems with aggressive behavior. It is our hope that investigators in this field can work together toward developing more precise and encompassing diagnostic criteria to study effectively both the neurobiology and treatment of these disorders.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Dopamine / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Environment
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology*
  • Norepinephrine / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Serotonin / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Testosterone / cerebrospinal fluid


  • Serotonin
  • Testosterone
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine