Serotonin Dysfunction, Aggressive Behavior, and Mental Illness: Exploring the Link Using a Dimensional Approach

M Manchia, B Carpiniello, F Valtorta, S Comai

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Aggressive individuals have higher rates of mental illness compared to non-aggressive individuals. Multiple factors, including psychosocial, genetic, and neurobiological determinants modulate the liability to both aggressive behavior and mental illness. Concerning the latter factors, multiple lines of evidence have shown a dysfunction in the serotonin (5-HT) system occurring in aggressive and in mentally ill individuals. In particular, reduced 5-HT activity has been associated with depression as well as with aggressive behavior, especially with impulsive aggression. Consistently, psychopharmacological interventions aimed at boosting the 5-HT system (e.g., with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have demonstrated therapeutic efficacy in a high percentage of patients with either or both pathological conditions. Current knowledge does not yet allow to clearly disentangle whether 5-HT dysfunction, most often a 5-HT deficiency, is the cause or the consequence of the aggressive/violent behavior, of the underlying mental disease/s, or the expression of the comorbidity. Future studies are thus needed to clarify the association between changes in 5-HT levels, altered activity of 5-HT receptors and their intracellular signaling cascades, and modifications of 5-HT genes, and in particular the neurobiological link between the altered 5-HT machinery and aggressive behavior in the context or in the absence of mental illness. In this Review, we employ a dimensional approach to discuss the trivariate relationship among the 5-HT system, aggressive behavior, and mental illness, focusing our attention on 5-HT levels, 5-HT receptors, metabolic enzymes, and their genes. Emphasis is given to controversial findings, still unanswered questions, and future perspectives. © 2017 American Chemical Society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)961-972
Number of pages12
JournalACS Chemical Neuroscience
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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