Imagine how many of the world’s problems would be solved if we had a magical serum that could cure violent behavior. Bar fights would be eliminated, wars eradicated, the sport of boxing rendered useless. But past research has shown that aggressiveness is an elusive trait, deriving from an unknown combination of genetic and hormonal factors. New research from Indiana University, however, suggests that there might be a simpler explanation to aggressive behavior and even, dare I say, a cure. To put it plainly, the scientists have found a way to eliminate aggression in birds by targeting a specific hormone hilariously known as VIP.
James Goodson and his team have been working with violet-eared waxbills for a few months now. Besides their scarlet coats and iridescent violet ear feathers, the birds are best known for being unusually aggressive. If you’ve got a male and female pair in a cage, for instance, and introduce another adult into the cage, the others would attack immediately. The behavior, Goodson and his team hypothesized, could be traced back to the hypothalmus, a ball-shaped region in the middle of the brain that controls basic functions like hunger and sleep. It’s been long known that zapping the hypothalmus with bursts of electricity would trigger more aggressive behavior in mice and birds, so they figured there must be something they could do to produce the opposite effect.
Indeed, Goodson found that an area known as the anterior hypothalmus was particularly active in violet-eared waxbills. It’s in this part of the brain that neurons secrete VIP, so the team figured they could manipulate aggression by simply manipulating this hormone. They were right. By targeting the part of the birds’ DNA that controls the VIP gene, the researchers got the birds to stop producing the hormone, and overnight, they went from violent killers to gentle creatures. Rather than chase and attack intruders, the treated violet-eared waxbills would simply argue with them. To confirm their findings, Goodson and his team tried the same technique on the zebra finch, a much more peaceful relative of the violet-earned waxbills, and found that the birds became even more peaceful than they normally are.
Now we just need to find out how to do the same thing in human brains. This is almost certainly a more complicated challenge, though. Scientists have been studying human aggression for decades and have linked the behavior to everything from testosterone production to activity in the prefrontal cortex, not to mention all of the social and psychological influences. Scientists have been able to isolate a so-called “warrior gene” that can predict aggressive behavior. This gene controls the production of an enzyme that regulates important neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Researchers haven’t yet found a way to control the gene, but it’s becoming widely acknowledged that it does play a key role in determining how aggressive people are. It’s even been used in court to explain why a murderer went on a bloody rampage.
All there is to do from here on out is simply experiment more. The next step for scientists like Goodson will be to extend the study of VIP to mammals, possibly mice or primates, to see if it has any effect. If you’re worried about your own aggressive tendencies, this research won’t do you much good for the foreseeable future though. You can, however, buy a homemade test kit to see if you have the “Warrior Gene.” It costs $99 and will probably just piss you off.