Contribution to Special Issue on Fast effects of steroids.
This review introduces functional MRI (fMRI) as an outstanding tool to assess rapid effects of sex steroids on auditory processing in seasonal songbirds. We emphasize specific advantages of this method as compared to other more conventional and invasive methods used for this purpose and summarize an exemplary auditory fMRI study performed on male starlings exposed to different types of starling song before and immediately after the inhibition of aromatase activity by an i.p. injection of Vorozole™. We describe how most challenges that relate to the necessity to anesthetize subjects and minimize image- and sound-artifacts can be overcome in order to obtain a voxel-based 3D-representation of changes in auditory brain activity to various sound stimuli before and immediately after a pharmacologically-induced depletion of endogenous estrogens. Analysis of the fMRI data by assumption-free statistical methods identified fast specific changes in activity in the auditory brain regions that were stimulus-specific, varying over different seasons, and in several instances lateralized to the left side of the brain. This set of results illustrates the unique features of fMRI that provides opportunities to localize and quantify the brain responses to rapid changes in hormonal status. fMRI offers a new image-guided research strategy in which the spatio-temporal profile of fast neuromodulations can be identified and linked to specific behavioral inputs or outputs. This approach can also be combined with more localized invasive methods to investigate the mechanisms underlying the observed neural changes.