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.
In response to changes in metabolic demand, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems are regulated in a highly coordinated fashion, such that both ventilation and cardiac output increase in a parallel fashion, thus maintaining a relatively constant level of arterial blood PO2, PCO2, and pH. In addition, external alerting stimuli that trigger defensive or orienting behavioral responses also trigger coordinated cardiorespiratory changes that are appropriate for the particular behavior. Furthermore, environmental challenges such as hypoxia or submersion evoke complex cardiovascular and respiratory response that have the effect of increasing oxygen uptake and/or conserving the available oxygen.
The brain mechanisms that are responsible for generating coordinated cardiorespiratory responses can be divided into reflex mechanisms and feedforward (central command) mechanisms. Reflexes that regulate cardiorespiratory function arise from a wide variety of internal receptors, and include those that signal changes in blood pressure, the level of blood oxygenation, respiratory activity, and metabolic activity. In most cases more than one reflex is activated, so that the ultimate cardiorespiratory response depends upon the interaction between different reflexes. The essential central pathways that subserve these reflexes are largely located within the brainstem and spinal cord, although they can be powerfully modulated by descending inputs arising from higher levels of the brain. The brain defense mechanisms that regulate the cardiorespiratory responses to external threatening stimuli (e.g., the sight, sound, or odor of a predator) are highly complex, and include both subcortical and cortical systems. The subcortical system, which includes the basal ganglia and midbrain colliculi as essential components, is phylogenetically ancient and generates immediate coordinated cardiorespiratory and motor responses to external stimuli. In contrast, the defense system that includes the cortex, hypothalamus, and limbic system evolved at a later time, and is better adapted to generating coordinated responses to external stimuli that involve cognitive appraisal.
Natalia Duque-Wilckens and Brian C. Trainor
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.
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.