Prodynorphin and kappa opioid receptor mRNA expression in the brain relates to social status and behavior in male European starlings

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Abstract

Numerous animal species display behavioral changes in response to changes in social status or territory possession. For example, in male European starlings only males that acquire nesting sites display high rates of sexual and agonistic behavior. Past studies show that mu and delta opioid receptors regulate behaviors associated with social ascension or defeat. Opioids also act at kappa receptors, with dynorphin binding with the highest affinity; however, the role of these opioids in social behavior has not been well studied. We observed flocks of male starlings during the breeding season and ran quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to measure expression of kappa opioid receptors (OPRK1) and prodynorphin (PDYN) in brain regions involved in social behavior and motivation (ventral tegmental area [VTA], medial preoptic nucleus [mPOA]) and vocal behavior (Area X). Males with nesting territories displayed more sexual/agonistic behavior than males without nesting territories. They also had lower OPRK1 expression in VTA and mPOA. OPRK1 expression in VTA correlated negatively with sexual/agonistic behaviors, consistent with past studies showing kappa receptors in VTA to inhibit sociosexual behaviors. PDYN in mPOA correlated negatively with a measure of nesting behavior that may also reflect sexual motivation. PDYN in Area X related positively to song. Distinct patterns of OPRK1 and PDYN expression in VTA, mPOA, and Area X related to gonad volume, suggesting that breeding condition may modify (or be modified by) OPRK1 and PDYN expression. Studies are now needed to further characterize the role of OPRK1 and PDYN in status-appropriate social behaviors.

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