Study Examines Neurotransmitters Linked to Aggression and Anti-Social Behavior

Bio-social Research

David Gangitano and two students will spent the summer on a study examining the link between neurotransmitters and aggressive and antisocial behavior.

Sam Houston State University (SHSU) is taking a new multidisciplinary approach to understanding behaviors that contribute to criminal activity and mental health problems.

Through an Enhancement Research Grant from SHSU, Associate Professor David Gangitano, Ph.D. Student Elizabeth Chesna, and Master’s Student Ana Blanco in the Department of Forensic Science will conduct research this summer to determine how two neurotransmitters – oxytocin and dopamine -- influence aggression and anti-social behavior in mice. Oxytocin is associated with bonding, trust, and empathy, and dopamine is responsible for the reward system, making it crucial in reinforcing behavior. These internal grants are designed to help researchers turn concepts into innovative studies or to attract external funding for research projects.

“Aggression and antisocial behavior both have a large impact on the criminal justice system and the health field,” said Gangitano. “The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Furthermore, aggressive and anti-social behavior are two of the leading causes of mental health referrals. By studying the influence of oxytocin and dopamine on social behavior in mice, it may provide insight about the mechanisms of development of aggressive and anti-social behavior.”

Previous research has shown that oxytocin may counteract the effects of dopamine when it comes to drug addiction. The study indicates that these two neurotransmitters may share a common pathway and play a role in reinforcing behavior.

“Several studies look at only the genetic influence or at only the environmental impact,” said Chesna. “While these each may be helpful, we chose to take a multidisciplinary approach. Behavior is so complex, and it cannot be explained by just one thing. Therefore, this research includes multiple types of analysis so that we can best determine how oxytocin and dopamine affect aggressive and antisocial behavior.”

This study is part of a larger research project to understand the relationship between neurotransmitters and behavior, which will include genetic data, behavioral tests, and neurobiology studies. This information will be used to identify genetic variations in inmate and student populations and compare them to behavioral tests that measure empathy and psychopathy.

The results of this research can help with early intervention and prevention. Reducing these types of behavior can help with inmate overpopulation and the mental health issue this country faces. This also can help identify biological vulnerabilities and how different levels of these neurotransmitters affect behavior. And finally, the study may contribute to the development treatments for different problems including drug addiction and anti-social behavior.

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