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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1998;22(1):85-97.

Catecholaminergic involvement in the control of aggression: hormones, the peripheral sympathetic, and central noradrenergic systems.

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  • 1Institute of Experimental Medicine, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest.


Noradrenaline is involved in many different functions, which all are known to affect behaviour profoundly. In the present review we argue that noradrenaline affects aggression on three different levels: the hormonal level, the sympathetic autonomous nervous system, and the central nervous system (CNS), in different, but functionally synergistic ways. Part of these effects may arise in indirect ways that are by no means specific to aggressive behaviour, however, they are functionally relevant to it. Other effects may affect brain mechanisms specifically involved in aggression. Hormonal catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) appear to be involved in metabolic preparations for the prospective fight; the sympathetic system ensures appropriate cardiovascular reaction, while the CNS noradrenergic system prepares the animal for the prospective fight. Indirect CNS effects include: the shift of attention towards socially relevant stimuli; the enhancement of olfaction (a major source of information in rodents); the decrease in pain sensitivity; and the enhancement of memory (an aggressive encounter is very relevant for the future of the animal). Concerning more aggression-specific effects one may notice that a slight activation of the central noradrenergic system stimulates aggression, while a strong activation decreases fight readiness. This biphasic effect may allow the animal to engage or to avoid the conflict, depending on the strength of social challenge. A hypothesis is presented regarding the relevance of different adrenoceptors in controlling aggression. It appears that neurons bearing postsynaptic alpha2-adrenoceptors are responsible for the start and maintenance of aggression, while a situation-dependent fine-tuning is realised through neurons equipped with beta-adrenoceptors. The latter phenomenon may be dependent on a noradrenaline-induced corticosterone secretion. It appears that by activating very different mechanisms the systems working with adrenaline and/or noradrenaline prepare the animal in a very complex way to answer the demands imposed by, and to endure the effects caused by, fights. It is a challenge for future research to elucidate how precisely these mechanisms interact to contribute to functionally relevant and adaptive aggressive behaviour.

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