Motivation to Bully Is Regulated by Brain Reward Circuits

Individual differences in the motivation to engage in or to avoid aggressive social interaction (bullying) are mediated by the basal forebrain, lateral habenula circuit in the brain, according to a study conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and published June 29 in the journal Nature.

The Mount Sinai study focuses on identifying the mechanisms by which specific brain reward regions interact to modulate the motivational or rewarding component of aggressive behavior using a mouse model.

Maladaptive aggressive behavior is associated with a number of psychiatric disorders and is thought to partly result from inappropriate activation of brain reward systems in response to aggressive or violent social stimuli. While previous research has implicated the basal forebrain as a potentially important brain reward region for aggression-related behaviors, there had been limited functional evidence that the basal forebrain, or its projections to other brain regions, directly controls the rewarding aspects of aggression.

“Our study is the first to demonstrate that bullying behavior activates a primary brain reward circuit that makes it pleasurable to a subset of individuals,” says Scott Russo, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Furthermore, we show that manipulating activity in this circuit alters the activity of brain cells and ultimately, aggression behavior.”

To study individual differences in aggressive behavior, the current team established a mouse behavioral model that exposed adult males to a younger subordinate mouse for three minutes each day for three consecutive days, and found that 70 percent of mice exhibited aggressive behavior (AGGs) while 30 percent of mice show no aggression at all (NONs).

Using conditioned place preference, a technique commonly used in animal studies to evaluate preferences for environmental stimuli that have been associated with a positive or negative reward, study investigators research found that AGGs mice bullied/attacked the subordinate mouse and subsequently developed a conditioned place preference for the intruder-paired context, suggesting that the aggressive mice found the ability to subordinate another mouse rewarding. Conversely, NONs mice did not bully/attack the intruder mouse and subsequently developed a conditioned place aversion.

All sensations, movements, thoughts, memories and feelings are the result of signals that pass through nerve cells (neurons), the primary functional unit of the brain and central nervous system. When a signal passes from the cell body to the end of the cell axon that stretches away from the cell body, chemicals known as neurotransmitters are released into the synapse, the place where signals are exchanged between cells. The neurotransmitters then cross the synapse and attach to receptors on the neighboring cell, which can change the properties of the receiving cell. Found throughout the brain and produced by neurons, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that binds to GABA receptors, making the neighboring neuron less excitable.  

The current study team investigated GABA projection neurons that can send long-range connections to inhibit neurons in other brain regions. Specifically, using electrophysiological and histological techniques, the research team found that when exposed to the opportunity to bully another individual, AGGs mice exhibit increased activity of the basal forebrain GABA projection neurons that reduce activity in the lateral habenula, an area of the brain that would normally encode an aversion to aggressive stimuli. Conversely, they found NONs exhibit reduced basal forebrain activation and a subsequent increase in lateral habenula neuronal firing, which makes the aggression stimuli aversive.  

While previous research has found the lateral habenula to play a role in negative moods states and aversion across a broad range of species, including mice and humans, little was previously known about the neural mechanisms that directly regulate the motivational component of aggressive behavior.  

Researchers then used optogenetic tools to directly manipulate the activity of GABA between the basal forebrain and the lateral habenula, demonstrating that stimulation or inhibition of BF-lHb projections is both sufficient and necessary to alter the inclination to engage in or avoid the opportunity to bully.

“When we artificially induced the rapid GABA neuron activation between the basal forebrain and lateral habenula, we watched in real time as the aggressive mice became docile and no longer showed bullying behavior,” says Dr. Russo. “Our study is unique in that we took information about the basal forebrain, lateral habenula projections  and then actually went back and manipulated these connections within animals to conclusively show that the circuits bi-directionally control aggression behavior.”

The study findings demonstrate a previously unidentified functional role for the lateral habenula and its inputs from the basal forebrain in mediating the rewarding component of aggression and suggest that targeting shared underlying deficits in motivational circuitry may provide useful information for the development of novel therapeutic drugs for treating aggression-related neuropsychiatric disorders.


100% convinced that social justice bloggers on this website are just as obsessed with misery as their conservative foes. No matter how you try to present it extremism is extremism. When we can’t even have productive dialogue and action we’re essentially marching in place.

How can you demonize someone for not knowing what you know? How can you sit there and demand that people “get educated” while ignoring those with learning or physical disabilites? I got a message from a 16 year old Black girl that made a self hating post and you know what grown Black people were doing? Harassing her, calling her stupid. Eventually some nice people stepped in including myself but that was honestly the last straw. You want me to believe that there’s no room for error, no time to learn? Just shovel down information without truly understanding it and attacking others blindly because it satisfies your own self loathing? That’s dark.

So I don’t care how “woke” you are there was a time in your life when you were FAST ASLEEP and essentially dead to the social justice conversations. And if anyone questioning and bringing up valid concerns about your behaviors gets met with hostility know that you are no better than those conservatives you love to bring up. Get real.
Conservatives have moved on from the gay marriage debate. Almost.
In the race to become the next Conservative Party leader, two contenders oppose gay marriage. It's not good for the brand.

One of the more damning indictments of social conservatism in this country came at the hands—or, more precisely, the eyeballs—of Conservative MP Michelle Rempel. At last May’s Conservative convention, the 36-year-old Rempel helped spearhead a motion striking down the party’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Gay marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005, and Rempel was suitably thrilled at the news that the Conservative Party of Canada was going to acknowledge as much some 11 years later.

“I’ve never been more proud of our party,” she said during a media scrum. “I think I’ll look back at this moment in my political career and my life as something that was really transformative and really awesome.”

Standing next to her was Brad Trost, a fellow Conservative MP from Saskatchewan. Trost is a staple of the party’s social conservative ranks, and his five-minute spiel for the cameras is required watching only as a majesty of self-martyrdom and bitterness wrapped in dime-store smarm. “Traditional marriage is the bedrock of society. You can’t have a free enterprise society without it,” he said. “In the next election, I will say that homosexual marriage, gay marriage, is wrong. I’ll be public about it.”

About two minutes in, around where Trost suggests allowing gay marriage will foment rampant socialism throughout Canadian society, Rempel looks at Trost like he was a bad smell. Her ensuing eye roll was probably captured on the recorders of the assembled journalists. A minute later, with Trost in mid-sentence, she turns and walks away.

There is so much in Rempel’s reaction: evident disdain, for one, but exasperation, embarrassment and hurt, too. And, maybe, worry. Because Trost isn’t just some perpetually aggrieved back bencher—though he’s that as well. At the convention, he threatened to run for the leadership of the Conservative party. On Aug. 16, he made good on those threats by declaring himself the sixth candidate to succeed Stephen Harper.

Again, it’s tempting to dismiss Trost’s leadership campaign as a last-gasp oddity fuelled more by hubris than political conviction. But while he may be the most vocal social conservative candidate, he certainly isn’t the only one.

Former Ontario MP Pierre Lemieux also recently declared his candidacy. Lemieux is almost as quotable as his Saskatchewan brethren. In 2006, he concluded his defence of “traditional” marriage in Parliament by asking God “to guide us in our efforts to defend the holy sacrament of marriage as the union between a man and a woman.” (Apparently, God had long given up on Parliament, since same-sex marriage had been the rule of law for over a year by then.)

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