SCIENCE
11/03/2016 4:57 AM AEDT | Updated 11/03/2016 3:34 PM AEDT

Brain Scientists Find The Birthplace Of Bullying

The remarkable discovery could lead to a revolution in the prevention of violence.

Wouldn't it be great if there were a drug that could shut down stalkers and turn bullies into nice guys? And stop people with severe psychiatric disorders from harming themselves or others?

We're not there yet -- not by a long shot. But scientists have just taken what may prove to be an important step toward the development of such a drug.

In a series of experiments conducted at New York University, the researchers showed that premeditated violence in mice (and presumably humans) arises in a specific region of the brain known as the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus, or VMHvl for short (see diagram below). The hypothalamus is the same brain region that regulates sleep, hunger and body temperature.

Dr. Mark Ansorge
In this diagram of the mouse brain, the front of the brain is at the left. The red spot represents the VMHvl.

Research has shown that it's possible to curb extreme aggression with the help of electrodes implanted in the brain. But a drug capable of doing the same thing could be a safer and more practical tool for preventing suicides and limiting the toll taken by bullies, stalkers and possibly sexual predators too.

"For us the goal is to find new ways to control violence, especially in patients who suffer from mental disorders," Dr. Dayu Lin, an assistant professor in the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center and the senior author of a paper describing the research, told The Huffington Post. "The idea is to take that component out of the disease."

That would be a very big accomplishment. While the overall threat of violence by mentally ill people is often exaggerated, experts say it is a serious issue with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and certain forms of dementia.

For us the goal is to find new ways to control violence, especially in patients who suffer from mental disorders."Neuroscientist Dr. Dayu Lin

In an email to The Huffington Post, Dr. Mark Ansorge, an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University, called the new research "very important" and praised it for offering up "a strong rationale to target the VMHvl for treatment of pathological anger."

But he cautioned that the development of a drug capable of curbing pathological violence as effectively as the techniques used in the new study "might still be science fiction."

Given the preliminary nature of the research, Lin agreed that it was hard to say for sure that an effective drug could be developed -- and, if so, how long that process might take. In a written statement released by the university, she called such a feat "a distant possibility, even if related ethical and legal issues could be resolved."

For the study, published online Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Lin and her collaborators used probes inserted into the brains of dominant male mice to monitor activity in the VMHvl.

The mice learned that by sticking their snouts through a particular hole in their cage they could gain access to a weaker mouse that they could then attack -- something they actually seemed to enjoy doing.

"Most of the mice were willing to make the effort to bring intruders into their homes just so they could attack," Lin explained.

The researchers monitored the VMHvl before, during and after the dominant mice planned their attacks. They found that activity in the region spiked as much as tenfold in the seconds after the "target" mice appeared in the cage -- strong evidence that this region of the brain was mediating the aggression.

When the researchers used the probes to block activity in the VMHvl, the aggression all but disappeared. 

Meddling with the VMHvl didn't seem to affect the mice's motivation to seek out treats, a finding that Ansorge said confirms that the region is involved specifically with motivation related to aggression.

The new study, which builds on previous research by Lin, suggests that researchers should devote more attention to the VMHvl and its role in aggressive behavior, Lin said in the statement.

The next step for her lab, she added, would be to try to determine which specific cells in the VMHvl are involved in aggression.

"If we will be able to get a handle on this group of cells and find some receptors on these cells," she said, "we might have a way to target those cells."

Let's all cross our fingers.

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