Aggressive behavior plays an essential role in survival and reproduction across animal species—it has been observed in insects, fish, reptiles, and mammals including humans. Even though specific aggressive behaviors are quite heterogeneous across species, many of the underlying mechanisms modulating aggression are highly conserved. For example, in a variety of species arginine vasopressin (AVP) and its homologue vasotocin in the hypothalamus, play an important role in regulating aggressive behaviorssuch as territorial and inter male aggression. Similarly in the medial amygdala, activation of a subpopulation of GABAergic neurons promotes aggression, while the prefrontal cortex exerts inhibitory control over aggressive behaviors. An important caveat in the aggression literature is that it is focused primarily on males, probably because in most species males are more aggressive than females. However, female aggression is also highly prevalent in many contexts, as it can affect access to resources such as mates, food, and offspring survival. Although it is likely that many underlying mechanisms are shared between sexes, there is sex specific variation in aggression, type, magnitude, and contexts, which suggests that there are important sex differences in how aggression is regulated. For example, while AVP acts to modulate aggression in both male and female hamsters, it increases male aggression but decreases female aggression. These differences can occur at the extent of neurotransmitter or hormones release, sensitivity (i.e., receptor expression), and/or molecular responses.
Natalia Duque-Wilckens and Brian C. Trainor
Ruth I. Wood and Kathryn G. Wallin-Miller
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are both performance-enhancing substances and drugs of abuse. Although AAS are banned in competitive sports, they are widely used by both elite and rank-and-file athletes. All AAS are derived from testosterone, the principle endogenous androgen produced by the testes of adult men. While AAS increase muscular strength and athletic performance, they also have serious consequences for health and behavior. AAS are implicated in maladaptive behavioral and cognitive changes such as increased risk-taking and altered decision-making. However, effects of AAS on cognition are not well understood. Studies of human AAS users are limited by an inability to control for pre-existing psychopathology and behavioral differences. Furthermore, in order to understand AAS effects on behavior, it is important to discover how AAS impact the brain. Animal models of AAS abuse parallel human studies to uncover effects on cognition, decision-making, and underlying neurobiological mechanisms. In operant discounting tests, rats treated with chronic high-dose testosterone are less sensitive to effort, punishment, and delay but are more sensitive to uncertainty. Likewise, they demonstrate impaired cognitive flexibility when tested for set-shifting and reversal learning. It appears that AAS induce many of these cognitive changes via effects on the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system, particularly through the dopamine D1- and D2-like receptors in subnuclei of the nucleus accumbens. AAS also have rewarding effects mediated by similar neural circuits. In preclinical studies, animals will voluntarily self-administer AAS. Human users may develop dependence. These findings highlight the vulnerability of brain circuits controlling cognition and reward to androgens at high doses.
Alyssa L. Pedersen and Colin J. Saldanha
Given the profound influence of steroids on the organization and activation of the vertebrate central nervous system (CNS), it is perhaps not surprising that these molecules are involved in processes that restructure the cytoarchitecture of the brain. This includes processes such as neurogenesis and the connectivity of neural circuits. In the last 30 years or so, we have learned that the adult vertebrate brain is far from static; it responds to changes in androgens and estrogens, with dramatic alterations in structure and function. Some of these changes have been directly linked to behavior, including sex, social dominance, communication, and memory. Perhaps the most dramatic levels of neuroplasticity are observed in teleosts, where circulating and centrally derived steroids can affect several end points, including cell proliferation, migration, and behavior. Similarly, in passerine songbirds and mammals, testosterone and estradiol are important modulators of adult neuroplasticity, with documented effects on areas of the brain necessary for complex behaviors, including social communication, reproduction, and learning. Given that many of the cellular processes that underlie neuroplasticity are often energetically demanding and temporally protracted, it is somewhat surprising that steroids can affect physiological and behavioral end points quite rapidly. This includes recent demonstrations of extremely rapid effects of estradiol on synaptic neurotransmission and behavior in songbirds and mammals. Indeed, we are only beginning to appreciate the role of temporally and spatially constrained neurosteroidogenesis, like estradiol and testosterone being made in the brain, on the rapid regulation of complex behaviors.
Dayna L. Averitt, Rebecca S. Hornung, and Anne Z. Murphy
The modulatory influence of sex hormones on acute pain, chronic pain disorders, and pain management has been reported for over seven decades. The effect of hormones on pain is clearly evidenced by the multitude of chronic pain disorders that are more common in women, such as headache and migraine, temporomandibular joint disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. Several of these pain disorders also fluctuate in pain intensity over the menstrual cycle, including headache and migraine and temporomandibular joint disorder. The sex steroid hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) as well as some peptide hormones (prolactin, oxytocin, and vasopressin) have been linked to pain by both clinical and preclinical research. Progesterone and testosterone are widely accepted as having protective effects against pain, while the literature on estrogen reports both exacerbation and attenuation of pain. Prolactin is reported to trigger pain, while oxytocin and vasopressin have analgesic properties in both sexes. Only in the last two decades have neuroscientists begun to unravel the complex anatomical and molecular mechanisms underlying the direct effects of sex hormones and mechanisms have been reported in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Mechanisms include directly or indirectly targeting receptors and ion channels on sensory neurons, activating pain excitatory or pain inhibitory centers in the brain, and reducing inflammatory mediators. Despite recent progress, there remains significant controversy and challenges in the field and the seemingly pleiotropic role estrogen plays on pain remains ambiguous. Current knowledge of the effects of sex hormones on pain has led to the burgeoning of gender-based medicine, and gaining further insight will lead to much needed improvement in pain management in women.
Divine C. Nwafor, Allison L. Brichacek, Sreeparna Chakraborty, Catheryne A. Gambill, Stanley A. Benkovic, and Candice M. Brown
The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a dynamic structural interface between the brain and periphery that plays a critical function in maintaining cerebral homeostasis. Over the past two decades, technological advances have improved our understanding of the neuroimmune and neuroendocrine mechanisms that regulate a healthy BBB. The combination of biological sex, sex steroids, age, coupled with innate and adaptive immune components orchestrates the crosstalk between the BBB and the periphery. Likewise, the BBB also serves as a nexus within the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) and gut-brain-microbiota axes. Compromised BBB integrity permits the entry of bioactive molecules, immune cells, microbes, and other components that migrate into the brain parenchyma and compromise neuronal function. A paramount understanding of the mechanisms that determine the bidirectional crosstalk between the BBB and immune and endocrine pathways has become increasingly important for implementation of therapeutic strategies to treat a number of neurological disorders that are significantly impacted by the BBB. Examples of these disorders include multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.
Caleigh Guoynes and Catherine Marler
How hormones and neuromodulators initiate and maintain paternal care is important for understanding the evolution of paternal care and the plasticity of the social brain. The focus here is on mammalian paternal behavior in rodents, non-human primates and humans. Only 5% of mammalian species express paternal care, and many of those species likely evolved the behavior convergently. This means that there is a high degree of variability in how hormones and neuromodulators shape paternal care across species. Important factors to consider include social experience (alloparental care, mating, pair bonding, raising a previous litter), types of care expressed (offspring protection, providing and sharing food, socio-cognitive development), and timing of hormonal changes (after mating, during gestation, after contact with offspring). The presence or absence of infanticide towards offspring prior to mating may also be a contributor, especially in rodents. Taking these important factors into account, we have found some general trends across species. (1) Testosterone and progesterone tend to be negatively correlated with paternal care but promote offspring defense in some species. The most evidence for a positive association between paternal care and testosterone have appeared in rodents. (2) Prolactin, oxytocin, corticosterone, and cortisol tend to be positively correlated. (3) Estradiol and vasopressin are likely nuclei specific—with some areas having a positive correlation with paternal care and others having a negative association. Some mechanisms appear to be coopted from females and others appear to have evolved independently. Overall, the neuroendocrine system seems especially important for mediating environmental influences on paternal behavior.
The demonstration of steroid binding proteins in brain areas outside of the hypothalamus was a key neuroendocrine discovery in the 1980s. These findings suggested that gonadal hormones, estradiol and testosterone, may have additional functions besides controlling reproduction through the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis (HPG) and that glucocorticoids may also influence neural functions not related to the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). In the past 30 years, since the early 1990s, a body of neuroendocrine studies in animals has provided evidence for these hypotheses, and in 2020, it is generally accepted that steroid hormones exert robust influences over cognition—both learning and memory. Gonadal hormones, predominantly estrogens, enhance learning and memory in rodents and humans and influence cognitive processes throughout the lifespan. Gonadal hormones bind to classical nuclear estrogen receptors and to membrane receptors to influence cognition. In contrast to the generally positive effects of gonadal hormones on learning and memory, adrenal hormones (glucocorticoids in rodents or cortisol in primates) released during chronic stress have adverse effects on cognition, causing impairments in both learning and memory. However, emerging evidence suggests that impairments may be limited only to males, as chronic stress in females does not usually impair cognition and, in many cases, enhances it. The cognitive resilience of females to stress may result from interactions between the HPG and HPA axis, with estrogens exerting neuroprotective effects against glucocorticoids at both the morphological and neurochemical level. Overall, knowledge of the biological underpinnings of hormonal effects on cognitive function has enormous implications for human health and well-being by providing novel tools for mitigating memory loss, for treating stress-related disorders, and for understanding the bases for resilience versus susceptibility to stress.
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.
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.