ERC Advanced Grant awarded to EMBL Rome researcher

The prestigious recognition awarded to Cornelius Gross will support the project TERRITORY, which aims to understand the neural basis of territorial behaviors, with EUR 2.5 million for 5 years

Profile picture of Cornelius Gross, interim head of EMBL Rome
Cornelius Gross, interim head of EMBL Rome. Credits: EMBL Photolab

Cornelius Gross, Interim Head of EMBL Rome, has been awarded an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for his project TERRITORY, aimed at investigating the neural basis of territorial aggression and fear.

Territorial behaviors are evolutionarily conserved instinctive reactions aimed at securing access to food, mates, and shelter. Territorial animals tend to attack other animals entering their territory and flee when attacked in another animal’s territory. While the brain structures that mediate such social aggression and avoidance have been intensively studied, it is not clear how territories can influence and modulate these behavioral responses. 

Previous studies from the Gross group have revealed the presence of an evolutionarily conserved structure in the hypothalamus which receives sensory information about threat stimuli and triggers social aggression or avoidance. They also found in the same brain structure a set of ‘territory cells’ that encode a map of social space but only become active following social experience. They speculate that this region of the hypothalamus is involved in modulating the switch between aggression and avoidance based on the territorial context. 

“We will now develop a semi-natural laboratory testing environment to monitor the dynamic acquisition of territories in mice over time and apply in vivo neural recording and manipulation methods,” said Cornelius Gross. “Our approach will provide a detailed insight into the mechanisms that underlie territory-based decision-making in the mammalian brain.” Dr. Gross was previously awarded an Advanced Grant from the ERC in 2013 to study social and predator fear circuits in the brain.

Deciphering the molecular mechanisms responsible for aggressive behaviors in mice will allow a better understanding of the neural circuits responsible for social fear and aggression in humans, who share the same hypothalamic structures. The research will also help identify new therapeutic avenues for managing the maladaptive aggression and fear symptoms common across mental illnesses.  

Tags: aggression, behavior, brain, erc, erc grant, fear, gross, neurobiology, neuroscience, rome, territory


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