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Open Access Research article

Unravelling the neurophysiological basis of aggression in a fish model

Amy L Filby*, Gregory C Paull, Tamsin FA Hickmore and Charles R Tyler

Author Affiliations

School of Biosciences, University of Exeter, Hatherly Laboratories, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 4PS, UK

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BMC Genomics 2010, 11:498  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-498

Published: 16 September 2010

Abstract

Background

Aggression is a near-universal behaviour with substantial influence on and implications for human and animal social systems. The neurophysiological basis of aggression is, however, poorly understood in all species and approaches adopted to study this complex behaviour have often been oversimplified. We applied targeted expression profiling on 40 genes, spanning eight neurological pathways and in four distinct regions of the brain, in combination with behavioural observations and pharmacological manipulations, to screen for regulatory pathways of aggression in the zebrafish (Danio rerio), an animal model in which social rank and aggressiveness tightly correlate.

Results

Substantial differences occurred in gene expression profiles between dominant and subordinate males associated with phenotypic differences in aggressiveness and, for the chosen gene set, they occurred mainly in the hypothalamus and telencephalon. The patterns of differentially-expressed genes implied multifactorial control of aggression in zebrafish, including the hypothalamo-neurohypophysial-system, serotonin, somatostatin, dopamine, hypothalamo-pituitary-interrenal, hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal and histamine pathways, and the latter is a novel finding outside mammals. Pharmacological manipulations of various nodes within the hypothalamo-neurohypophysial-system and serotonin pathways supported their functional involvement. We also observed differences in expression profiles in the brains of dominant versus subordinate females that suggested sex-conserved control of aggression. For example, in the HNS pathway, the gene encoding arginine vasotocin (AVT), previously believed specific to male behaviours, was amongst those genes most associated with aggression, and AVT inhibited dominant female aggression, as in males. However, sex-specific differences in the expression profiles also occurred, including differences in aggression-associated tryptophan hydroxylases and estrogen receptors.

Conclusions

Thus, through an integrated approach, combining gene expression profiling, behavioural analyses, and pharmacological manipulations, we identified candidate genes and pathways that appear to play significant roles in regulating aggression in fish. Many of these are novel for non-mammalian systems. We further present a validated system for advancing our understanding of the mechanistic underpinnings of complex behaviours using a fish model.