The importance of stress and genetic variation in human aggression

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Both genetic and environmental factors have key roles in determining aggressive tendencies. In particular, reaction to stress appears to be an important factor in precipitating aggressive episodes and individuals may vary in their ability to cope with stressful environments depending on their genetic make up. Evidence from humans and primates indicates that adverse rearing conditions may interact with variants in stress and neurotransmitter pathway genes leading to antisocial and/or violent behaviour. Common alleles of some serotonin pathway genes, including those involved in its degradation (monoamine oxidase A, MAOA), or its re-uptake into pre-synaptic neurones (serotonin transporter, SERT) have been shown to confer functional variation. Examination of the interaction between the alleles of such polymorphisms (in particular those affecting MAOA) and environmental stressors suggest that they may provide protection against, or increase sensitivity to, abusive upbringing; an observation that may explain part of the variability in developmental outcomes associated with maltreatment.

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