Contributions of testosterone and territory ownership to sexually-motivated behaviors and mRNA expression in the medial preoptic area of male European starlings

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Animals integrate social information with their internal endocrine state to control the timing of behavior, but how these signals are integrated in the brain is not understood. The medial preoptic area (mPOA) may play an integrative role in the control of courtship behavior, as it receives projections from multiple sensory systems, and is central to the hormonal control of courtship behavior across vertebrates. Additionally, data from many species implicate opioid and dopaminergic systems in the mPOA in the control of male courtship behavior. We used European starlings to test the hypothesis that testosterone (T) and social status (in the form of territory possession) interact to control the timing of courtship behavior by modulating steroid hormone-, opioid- and dopaminergic-related gene expression in the mPOA. We found that only males given both T and a nesting territory produced high rates of courtship behavior in response to a female. T treatment altered patterns of gene expression in the mPOA by increasing androgen receptor, aromatase, mu-opioid receptor and preproenkephalin mRNA and decreasing tyrosine hydroxylase mRNA expression. Territory possession did not alter mRNA expression in the mPOA, despite the finding that only birds with both T and a nesting territory produced courtship behavior. We propose that T prepares the mPOA to respond to the presence of a female with high rates of courtship song by altering gene expression, but that activity in the mPOA is under a continuous (i.e. tonic) inhibition until a male starling obtains a nesting territory.

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