Inhibiting ERα expression in the medial amygdala increases prosocial behavior in male meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

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Abstract

This study tested the hypothesis that site-specific estrogen receptor alpha (ERα) expression is a critical factor in the expression of male prosocial behavior and aggression. Previous studies have shown that in the socially monogamous prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) low levels of ERα expression, in the medial amygdala (MeA), play an essential role in the expression of high levels of male prosocial behavior and that increasing ERα expression reduced male prosocial behavior. We used an shRNA adeno-associated viral vector to knock down/inhibit ERα in the MeA of the polygynous male meadow vole (M. pennsylvanicus), which displays significantly higher levels of ERα in the MeA than its monogamous relative. Control males were transfected with a luciferase expressing AAV vector. After treatment males participated in three social behavior tests, a same-sex dyadic encounter, an opposite-sex social preference test and an alloparental test. We predicted that decreasing MeA ERα would increase male meadow vole's prosocial behavior and reduce aggression. The results generally supported the hypothesis. Specifically, MeA knockdown males displayed lower levels of defensive aggression during dyadic encounters and increased levels of overall side-x-side physical contact with females during the social preference test, eliminating the partner preference observed in controls. There was no effect on pup interactions, with both treatments expressing low levels of alloparental behavior. Behaviors affected were similar to those in male prairie voles with increased ERα in the BST rather than the MeA, suggesting that relative changes of expression within these nuclei may play a critical role in regulating prosocial behavior.

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