Puberty onset marks the beginning of adolescence and an organism’s transition to adulthood. Across species, adolescence is a dynamic period of maturation for brain and behavior. Pubertal processes, including the increase in gonadal hormone production, or gonadarche, can influence a broad array of neural processes and circuits to ultimately shape adult behavior. Decades of research in rodent models have shown that gonadal hormones at puberty promote adult-typical patterns of behavior across social, affective, and cognitive realms. Importantly, hormonal activation of sex-specific patterns of adult behavior relies on sexual differentiation of the brain around the time of birth, mediated by testicular hormones in males – and lack thereof in females. While it was originally believed that gonadal hormones play a purely activational role at puberty, studies in the early 21st century provide examples where the timing and relative levels of gonadal hormones exert long-lasting, or organizational effects on brain and behavior. In this way, adolescent exposure to gonadal hormones can orchestrate brain and body changes in unison and in some cases tune how the brain responds to gonadal hormones in adulthood. Notably, many of the effects of puberty on behavior may occur indirectly by altering sensitivity to environmental events and an organism’s ability to respond to or learn from experience. These insights from the animal literature provide a framework for understanding how puberty may influence the maturation of complex behaviors and modify risk or resilience to mental health disorders during human adolescence. In sum, puberty interacts with genetics, early life organizational effects of gonadal hormones, experience, and learning processes to shape behavior in adulthood.
Role of Puberty on Adult Behaviors
Kristen Delevich and Linda Wilbrecht
Hormones and Animal Communication
Eliot A. Brenowitz
Animals produce communication signals to attract mates and deter rivals during their breeding season. The coincidence in timing results from the modulation of signaling behavior and neural activity by sex steroid hormones associated with reproduction. Adrenal steroids can influence signaling for aggressive interactions outside the breeding season. Androgenic and estrogenic hormones act on brain circuits that regulate the motivation to produce and respond to signals, the motor production of signals, and the sensory perception of signals. Signal perception, in turn, can stimulate gonadal development.
An Overview of Sexual Differentiation of the Mammalian Nervous System and Behavior
There is growing appreciation for the numerous and often dramatic differences in the nervous system of males and females and the importance of these sex differences for behavioral traits. Sex differences in the nervous system and behavior result from a process of sexual differentiation that is carried out by the interplay of genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors throughout the life span. Although the preponderance of mechanistic study of mammalian sexual differentiation has occurred in traditional laboratory rodents, this field of study has benefitted from comparative studies, which highlight the diversity in sexual polymorphism in vertebrates and also point to strongly conserved mechanisms whereby these sexually differentiated traits develop.
Regulation of Gonadotropins
Daniel J. Bernard, Yining Li, Chirine Toufaily, and Gauthier Schang
The gonadotropins, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), are glycoproteins produced by gonadotrope cells of the anterior pituitary gland. The two hormones act on somatic cells of the gonads in both males and females to regulate fundamental aspects of reproductive physiology, including gametogenesis and steroidogenesis. In males, LH stimulates testosterone production and sperm maturation. FSH also regulates spermatogenesis, though the importance of the hormone in this process differs across species. In females, FSH stimulates ovarian follicle maturation. Follicles are structures composed of oocytes surrounded by two types of somatic cells, granulosa and theca cells. FSH stimulates granulosa cells to proliferate and to increase their production of the aromatase enzyme. LH stimulates theca cells to make androgens, which are converted into estrogens by aromatase in granulosa cells. A surge of LH also stimulates ovulation of mature follicles. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the brain is the principal stimulator of gonadotropin synthesis and secretion from the pituitary. The sex steroids (androgens and estrogens) that are produced by the gonads in response to the gonadotropins feedback to the brain and pituitary gland. In the brain, these hormones usually slow the release of GnRH through a process called negative feedback, which in turn leads to decreases in FSH and LH. The steroids also modulate the sensitivity of the pituitary to GnRH in addition to directly regulating expression of the genes that encode the gonadotropin subunits. These effects are gene- and species-specific. In females, estrogens also have positive feedback actions in the brain and pituitary in a reproductive cycle stage-dependent manner. This positive feedback promotes GnRH and LH release, leading to the surge of LH that triggers ovulation. The gonadotropins are dimeric proteins. FSH and LH share a common α-subunit but have hormone-specific subunits, FSHβ and LHβ. The β subunits provide a means for differential regulation and action of the two hormones. In the case of FSH, there is a second gonadal feedback system that specifically regulates the FSHβ subunit. The gonads produce proteins in the transforming growth factor β (TGFβ) family called inhibins, which come in two forms (inhibin A and inhibin B). The ovary produces both inhibins whereas the testes make inhibin B alone. Inhibins selectively suppress FSH synthesis and secretion, without affecting LH. The pituitary produces additional TGFβ proteins called activins, which are structurally related to inhibins. Activins, however, stimulate FSH synthesis by promoting transcription of the FSHβ subunit gene. Inhibins act as competitive receptor antagonists, binding to activin receptors and blocking activin action, and thereby leading to decreases in FSH. Together, GnRH, sex steroids, activins, and inhibins modulate and coordinate gonadotropin production and action to promote proper gonadal function and fertility.
Sexual Behavior in Males From a Neuroendocrine Perspective
Jacques Balthazart and Gregory F. Ball
It is well established that testosterone from testicular origin plays a critical role in the activation of male sexual behavior in most, if not all, vertebrate species. These effects take place to a large extent in the preoptic area although other brain sites are obviously also implicated. In its target areas, testosterone is actively metabolized either into estrogenic and androgenic steroids that have specific behavioral effects or into inactive metabolites. These transformations either amplify the behavioral activity of testosterone or, alternatively, metabolism to an inactive compound dissipates any biological effect. Androgens and estrogens then bind to nuclear receptors that modulate the transcription of specific genes. This process is controlled by a variety of co-activators and co-repressors that, respectively, enhance or inhibit these transcriptional processes. In addition, recent work has shown that the production of estrogens by brain aromatase can be modulated within minutes by changes in neural activity and that these rapid changes in neuroestrogen production impact sexual behavior, in particular sexual motivation within the same time frame. Estrogens thus affect specific aspects of male sexual behavior in two different time frames via two types of mechanisms that are completely different. Multiple questions remain open concerning the cellular brain mechanisms that mediate testosterone action on male sexual behavior.