While aggression is often conceptualized as a highly stereotyped, innate behavior, individuals within a species exhibit a surprising amount of variability in the frequency, intensity, and targets of their aggression. While differences in genetics are a source of some of this variation across individuals (estimates place the heritability of behavior at around 25–30%), a critical driver of variability is previous life experience. A wide variety of social experiences, including sexual, parental, and housing experiences can facilitate “persistent” aggressive states, suggesting that these experiences engage a common set of synaptic and molecular mechanisms that act on dedicated neural circuits for aggression. It has long been known that sex steroid hormones are powerful modulators of behavior, and also, that levels of these hormones are themselves modulated by experience. Several recent studies have started to unravel how experience-dependent hormonal changes during adulthood can create a cascade of molecular, synaptic, and circuit changes that enable behavioral persistence through circuit level remodeling. Here, we propose that sex steroid hormones facilitate persistent aggressive states by changing the relationship between neural activity and an aggression “threshold”.
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