Neuroscience’s New Toolbox
With the invention of optogenetics and other technologies, researchers can investigate the source of emotions, memory, and consciousness for the first time.
What might be called the “make love, not war” branch of behavioral neuroscience began to take shape in (where else?) California several years ago, when researchers in David J. Anderson’s laboratory at Caltech decided to tackle the biology of aggression. They initiated the line of research by orchestrating the murine version of Fight Night: they goaded male mice into tangling with rival males and then, with painstaking molecular detective work, zeroed in on a smattering of cells in the hypothalamus that became active when the mice started to fight.
The hypothalamus is a small structure deep in the brain that, among other functions, coördinates sensory inputs—the appearance of a rival, for example—with instinctual behavioral responses. Back in the 1920s, Walter Hess of the University of Zurich (who would win a Nobel in 1949) had shown that if you stuck an electrode into the brain of a cat and electrically stimulated certain regions of the hypothalamus, you could turn a purring feline into a furry blur of aggression. Several interesting hypotheses tried to explain how and why that happened, but there was no way to test them. Like a lot of fundamental questions in brain science, the mystery of aggression didn’t go away over the past century—it just hit the usual empirical roadblocks. We had good questions but no technology to get at the answers.
By 2010, Anderson’s Caltech lab had begun to tease apart the underlying mechanisms and neural circuitry of aggression in their pugnacious mice. Armed with a series of new technologies that allowed them to focus on individual clumps of cells within brain regions, they stumbled onto a surprising anatomical discovery: the tiny part of the hypothalamus that seemed correlated with aggressive behavior was intertwined with the part associated with the impulse to mate. That small duchy of cells—the technical name is the ventromedial hypothalamus—turned out to be an assembly of roughly 5,000 neurons, all marbled together, some of them seemingly connected to copulating and others to fighting.
“There’s no such thing as a generic neuron,” says Anderson, who estimates that there may be up to 10,000 distinct classes of neurons in the brain. Even tiny regions of the brain contain a mixture, he says, and these neurons “often influence behavior in different, opposing directions.” In the case of the hypothalamus, some of the neurons seemed to become active during aggressive behavior, some of them during mating behavior, and a small subset—about 20 percent—during both fighting and mating.
That was a provocative discovery, but it was also a relic of old-style neuroscience. Being active was not the same as causing the behavior; it was just a correlation. How did the scientists know for sure what was triggering the behavior? Could they provoke a mouse to pick a fight simply by tickling a few cells in the hypothalamus?