In many vertebrate species, certain individuals will seek out opportunities for aggression, even in the absence of threat-provoking cues. Although several brain areas have been implicated in the generation of attack in response to social threat, little is known about the neural mechanisms that promote self-initiated or 'voluntary' aggression-seeking when no threat is present. To explore this directly, we utilized an aggression-seeking task in which male mice self-initiated aggression trials to gain brief and repeated access to a weaker male that they could attack. In males that exhibited rapid task learning, we found that the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMHvl), an area with a known role in attack, was essential for aggression-seeking. Using both single-unit electrophysiology and population optical recording, we found that VMHvl neurons became active during aggression-seeking and that their activity tracked changes in task learning and extinction. Inactivation of the VMHvl reduced aggression-seeking behavior, whereas optogenetic stimulation of the VMHvl accelerated moment-to-moment aggression-seeking and intensified future attack. These data demonstrate that the VMHvl can mediate both acute attack and flexible seeking actions that precede attack.
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