A brain conditioned for social defeat

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Science  01 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6281, pp. 42-43
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6016

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Aggression is common in the animal kingdom, even though agonistic behaviors can lead to chronic stress or pain. So how does aggression remain conserved evolutionarily? In 1859, Darwin argued in his book On the Origin of Species that the conservation of any behavioral trait is ultimately explained by its necessity for survival and reproduction. To survive with limited resources, individuals express aggressive behaviors against competitors to pass on their genes. For social animals, dominance hierarchies establish rapidly (1), avoiding the cost of recurrent fighting within the group. Hierarchy formation and maintenance rely on the effect of prior experience (2). However, the underlying mechanisms and neural circuitry remain elusive. On page 87 of issue, Chou et al. (3) identify a key role for the dorsal habenula (dHb) region of the brain in zebrafish to determine who wins and who loses in a fight. This region is highly conserved across vertebrates, raising the possibility of manipulating neuronal circuits that govern innate social behaviors.