21 April 2021

In recent work published in Current BiologyApril 14th, Sabrina van Heukelum and her colleagues from the department of Cognitive Neuroscience of the Radboudumc, in collaboration with universities in Germany, the UK and the US, showed that in mice, anterior cingulate cortex​ (ACC) dials down excessive aggression, but leaves context-appropriate aggression intact.

Imagine standing in line at the supermarket when somebody cuts right in front of you. What do you do? Tell them to please join the back of the line? That is probably useful. Punch them in the face? Not so much. This example illustrates a simple principle: Aggression is a basic and useful aspect of behaviour – if used in proportion. Given how crucial the appropriate use of aggression is, it may come as no surprise that a whole network of brain areas is tasked with controlling aggressive behaviour. One prominent area within this network is ACC, but its precise behavioural function was unclear so far.

The current study focuses on a mouse strain known for pathologically aggressive behaviour – the BALB/cJ strain - and first establishes that in BALB/cJ mice, ACC is severely degraded, with widespread neuron death and increased neuro-toxic glia. This also affects ACC function: BALB/cJ mice fail to activate ACC during confrontations with other mice. Could simply re-activating ACC return their aggression levels to normal? To find out, van Heukelum et al. chemogenetically boosted ACC activity in BALB/cJ mice during aggressive encounters (read more about chemogenetics here). The result: Excessive attacks were eliminated, but ‘normal’ aggressive acts like threat behaviour remained.

These findings suggest that ACC selectively edits aggressive impulses, filtering out pathological expressions of aggression. It also highlights ACC as a prime target for potential clinical interventions: Increasing ACC activity e.g. via transcranial magnetic stimulation may help to address pathological aggression - while leaving context-appropriate aggression and patients’ overall affect intact.


van Heukelum, S., Tulva, K., Geers, F. E., van Dulm, S., Ruisch, I. H., …, M.N, Havenith & França, A. S. (2021). A central role for anterior cingulate cortex in the control of pathological aggression. Current Biology

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