Mean genes and the biology of aggression: A critical review of recent animal and human research

Evan Balaban, Joseph S. Alper, Yvette L. Kasamon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Recent genetic work has suggested that abnormalities in serotonin biochemistry are directly causally linked to aggressive behavior, and there appears to be a consensus in the psychiatric literature that low levels of the serotonin metabolite 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) in cerebrospinal fluid are specifically associated with impulsive violent behavior. We review the limitations of the genetic studies and conduct a meta-analysis of 39 studies linking 5-HIAA to aggression in humans. No differences in mean 5-HIAA levels were found between groups of violent impulsive psychiatric patients and groups of subjects diagnosed with other psychiatric or medical conditions not considered to involve violence once these levels had been corrected for three nonpsychiatric sources of variation (age, sex and height). However, mean 5-HIAA levels in both of these groups were lower than the mean corrected level in groups of normal healthy volunteers. The results confirm an association between low 5-HIAA levels and psychiatric disorders, but fail to support any specific relationship between low 5-HIAA levels and impulsive aggression or criminality. It is premature and misleading to speak of "mean genes" (Hen 1996) or a specific neurochemistry of aggressive behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-43
Number of pages43
JournalJournal of Neurogenetics
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • 5-HIAA
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Meta-analysis
  • Psychiatry
  • Serotonin
  • Violent behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Genetics
  • Neuroscience(all)

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