Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Imaging the neural circuitry and chemical control of aggressive motivation

Craig F Ferris16*, Tara Stolberg1, Praveen Kulkarni1, Murali Murugavel2, Robert Blanchard3, D Caroline Blanchard3, Marcelo Febo1, Mathew Brevard4 and Neal G Simon5

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Translational NeuroImaging, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

2 Dept Mechanical Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA

3 Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

4 Insight Neuroimaging Systems, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA

5 Department of Biological Sciences, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA

6 Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts 02115-5000, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2008, 9:111  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-9-111

Published: 13 November 2008



With the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in awake animals it is possible to resolve patterns of neuronal activity across the entire brain with high spatial and temporal resolution. Synchronized changes in neuronal activity across multiple brain areas can be viewed as functional neuroanatomical circuits coordinating the thoughts, memories and emotions for particular behaviors. To this end, fMRI in conscious rats combined with 3D computational analysis was used to identifying the putative distributed neural circuit involved in aggressive motivation and how this circuit is affected by drugs that block aggressive behavior.


To trigger aggressive motivation, male rats were presented with their female cage mate plus a novel male intruder in the bore of the magnet during image acquisition. As expected, brain areas previously identified as critical in the organization and expression of aggressive behavior were activated, e.g., lateral hypothalamus, medial basal amygdala. Unexpected was the intense activation of the forebrain cortex and anterior thalamic nuclei. Oral administration of a selective vasopressin V1a receptor antagonist SRX251 or the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor fluoxetine, drugs that block aggressive behavior, both caused a general suppression of the distributed neural circuit involved in aggressive motivation. However, the effect of SRX251, but not fluoxetine, was specific to aggression as brain activation in response to a novel sexually receptive female was unaffected.


The putative neural circuit of aggressive motivation identified with fMRI includes neural substrates contributing to emotional expression (i.e. cortical and medial amygdala, BNST, lateral hypothalamus), emotional experience (i.e. hippocampus, forebrain cortex, anterior cingulate, retrosplenial cortex) and the anterior thalamic nuclei that bridge the motor and cognitive components of aggressive responding. Drugs that block vasopressin neurotransmission or enhance serotonin activity suppress activity in this putative neural circuit of aggressive motivation, particularly the anterior thalamic nuclei.