Testosterone and cortisol have been proposed to influence aggressive behavior by altering the neural processing of facial threat signals. However, this has not been investigated in direct social interactions. Here, we explored the joint impact of testosterone, cortisol, and brain reactivity to anger expressions on women's reactive aggression in the Social Threat Aggression Paradigm (STAP). The STAP is a competitive reaction time task in which the purported opponent displays either an angry or a neutral facial expression at the beginning of each trial and delivers increasingly loud sound blasts to the participants, successfully provoking them. Strikingly, salivary testosterone at scan-time was negatively related to both aggression and basolateral amygdala (BLA) reactivity to angry faces, whereas cortisol had no effect. When the opponent looked angry, BLA-orbitofrontal coupling was reduced, and BLA reactivity was positively related to aggression. The latter relationship was fully mediated by bilateral superior temporal gyrus (STG) activation. Our results thus support previous neurobiological models of aggression, and extend them by demonstrating that fast amygdala responses to threat modulate STG activity in order to favor aggressive retaliation. Furthermore, our study agrees with recent evidence underscoring a fear-reducing and strategically prosocial effect of testosterone on human social behavior.
Research Areas and Centers
- Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)