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
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.
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.
Danielle S. Stolzenberg, Kimberly L. Hernandez-D'Anna, Oliver J. Bosch, and Joseph S. Lonstein
For female mammals, caring for young until weaning or even longer is an extension of the reproductive burden that begins at insemination. Given the high price females potentially pay for failing to transmit genetic material to future generations, a multitude of interacting endocrine, neuroendocrine, and other neurochemical determinants are in place to ensure competent maternal caregiving by the time the offspring are born. Achieving this high maternal competency at parturition seems effortless but is quite a feat given that many nulliparous and parentally inexperienced female mammals are more prone to ignore, if not outright harm, conspecific neonates. There are important roles for ovarian steroids (e.g., estradiol and progesterone), adrenal steroids (e.g., glucocorticoids), and neuropeptide hormones (e.g., prolactin, oxytocin, arginine-vasopressin, and corticotropin-releasing factor) released during pregnancy, parturition, and postpartum in the onset and maintenance of caregiving behaviors in a broad range of commonly studied animals including rats, mice, rabbits, sheep, and primates. It is especially remarkable that the same collection of hormones influences caregiving similarly across these diverse animals, although to varying degrees. In addition to the well-known effects of hormones and neuropeptides on motherhood, more recent research indicates that experience-dependent epigenetic effects are also powerful modulators of the same neural substrates that can influence maternal responding.
Understanding of the brain mechanisms regulating reproductive behaviors in female laboratory animals has been aided greatly by our knowledge of estrogen receptors in the brain. Hypothalamic neurons that express the gene for estrogen receptor-alpha regulate activity in the neural circuit for the simplest female reproductive response, lordosis behavior. In turn, many of the neurotransmitter inputs to the critical hypothalamic neurons have been studied using electrophysiological and neurochemical techniques. The upshot of all of these studies is that lordosis behavior presents the best understood set of mechanisms for any mammalian behavior.
Brian P. Kenealy and Ei Terasawa
Female reproduction is an interplay between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and ovaries. While the gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) neuron in the hypothalamus regulates gonadal function through the pituitary, GnRH neuronal activity is also profoundly influenced by ovarian steroid hormones. GnRH is released from GnRH neurons in a pulsatile manner after integration of a diverse array of internal and external milieus. Since the discovery of the mammalian GnRH molecule, over a dozen GnRH forms have been identified in the animal kingdom, and large numbers of publications in various lab animal and human studies suggest that GnRH neurons are regulated by multiple neuromodulators in the brain, such as kisspeptin, neurokinin B, β-dynorphin, neuropeptide Y, GnIH, GABA, glutamate, and glial factors. A recent emerging concept is that steroids synthesized locally in the hypothalamus, namely, neuroestradiol and neuroprogesterone, also contribute to the regulation of GnRH neuronal activity, and hence female reproduction. Together with modulation by various inputs and ovarian steroid feedback, GnRH neurons are responsible for puberty, cyclic ovulation, and menopause.
Paul E. Micevych and Melinda A. Mittelman-Smith
In the last two decades of the 20th century, key findings in the field of estrogen signaling completely changed our understanding of hormones: first, steroidogenesis was demonstrated in the CNS; second, a vast majority of cells in the nervous system were shown to have estrogen receptors; third, a second nuclear estrogen receptor (ERß) was cloned; and finally, “nuclear” receptors were shown to be present and functional in the cell membrane. Shortly thereafter, even more membrane estrogen receptors were discovered. Steroids (estrogens, in particular) began to be considered as neurotransmitters and their receptors were tethered to G protein-coupled receptor signaling cascades. In some parts of the brain, levels of steroids appeared to be independent of those found in the circulation and yet, circulating steroids had profound actions on the brain physiology. In this review, we discuss the interaction of peripheral and central estrogen action in the context of female reproduction—one of the best-studied aspects of steroid action. In addition to reviewing the evidence for steroidogenesis in the hypothalamus, we review membrane-localized nuclear receptors coupling to G protein-signaling cascades and the downstream physiological consequences for reproduction. We will also introduce newer work that demonstrates cell signaling for a common splice variant of estrogen receptor-α (ERα), and membrane action of neuroprogesterone in regulating estrogen positive feedback.