Predators must frequently balance competing approach and defensive behaviors elicited by a moving and potentially dangerous prey. Several brain circuits supporting predation have recently been localized. However, the mechanisms by which these circuits balance the conflict between approach and defense responses remain unknown. Laboratory mice initially show alternating approach and defense responses toward cockroaches, a natural prey, but with repeated exposure become avid hunters. Here, we used in vivo neural activity recording and cell-type specific manipulations in hunting male mice to identify neurons in the lateral hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray that encode and control predatory approach and defense behaviors. We found a subset of GABAergic neurons in lateral hypothalamus that specifically encoded hunting behaviors and whose stimulation triggered predation but not feeding. This population projects to the periaqueductal gray, and stimulation of these projections promoted predation. Neurons in periaqueductal gray encoded both approach and defensive behaviors but only initially when the mouse showed high levels of fear of the prey. Our findings allow us to propose that GABAergic neurons in lateral hypothalamus facilitate predation in part by suppressing defensive responses to prey encoded in the periaqueductal gray. Our results reveal a neural circuit mechanism for controlling the balance between conflicting approach and defensive behaviors elicited by the same stimulus.
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