What is aggression and what are its causes?

The term aggression derives from the Latin aggressio which means 'attack' and comes from the joining of ad- and gradi- (step at). Aggression is a natural behaviour in humans and can be understood as an adaptive trait under natural selection, as it helps animals to survive.  Although there is a biological or evolutionary basis for aggression, cultural and social factors deeply imprint human aggression. Also, several psychiatric impairments result in aggressive behaviours. All these factors can contribute to the advent of aggressive conducts and are the focus of intensive scientific research.

Why is aggression research important?

Aggression is highly present in our society, with more than 5 million children or adolescents in the EU affected by common psychiatric disorders that present aggression traits, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (CD). The management of these disorders has a tremendous economic cost for the health system, estimated as more than six billion Euros per year. Importantly, impairment in social functioning and substance use disorders are among the adult consequences of these pathologies, with associated costs that are an order of magnitude higher than those for the childhood disorders.

What are the main goals of our project?

We aim at investigating the biological basis of both the reactive (emotional, impulsive) aggression and the proactive (instrumental, predator) presentations of aggression, working in human subjects and in animal models. This involves different levels of scrutiny, including genetics, brain imaging, epigenetics, work on neuron cell lines derived from stem cells or cognitive and behavioural assessments. But most important, we are committed to translate our preclinical findings into predictive, preventive and eventually therapeutic strategies, e.g. by using animal (mice, zebrafish) and cellular models to identify novel leads for treatment.

How will the society and patients benefit from our work?

Our project involves basic research, but it also aims at defining algorithms for aggression prediction, at testing non-pharmacological and pharmacological treatment approaches in children and adults and at identifying novel pharmacological compounds in animal models that can eventually be used for the treatment of human subjects.