For most people, their quality of life depends on their successful interdependence with others, which requires sophisticated social cognition, communication, and emotional bonds. Across the lifespan, new bonds must be forged and maintained, and conspecific menaces must be managed. The dynamic nature of the human social landscape suggests ongoing specific alterations in neural circuitry across several brain systems to subserve social behavior. To discover the biological mechanisms that contribute to normal social activities, animal models of social behavior have been developed. One valuable model system has been female rat sexual behavior, which is governed by cyclic variation of ovarian hormones. This behavior is modulated by the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) through its actions in the hypothalamic ventromedial nucleus (VMH). The fluctuation of this behavior is associated with dendrite remodeling, like several other examples of behavioral plasticity. This review compares hormone-induced plasticity in the VMH with other examples of dendrite plasticity across the mammalian nervous system, namely the neurobehavioral paradigms of environmental enrichment, chronic stress, and incentive sensitization, which affect the neocortex, hippocampal formation, and ventral striatum, respectively. This comparison suggests that the effects of ovarian hormones on VMH neurons in rats, given the simple dendritic arbor and short time course for dendrite remodeling, provide a dual opportunity for mechanistic and functional studies that will shed light on i) the neural actions of OT that regulate social behavior and, ii) behaviorally relevant dendrite regulation in a variety of brain structures.
This article is part of a Special Issue entitled Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Social Behavior.