Contribution to Special Issue on Fast effects of steroids.
Steroid hormones, such as estrogens, were once thought to be exclusively synthesized in the ovaries and enact transcriptional changes over the course of hours to days. However, estrogens are also locally synthesized within neural circuits, wherein they rapidly (within minutes) modulate a range of behaviors, including spatial cognition and communication. Here, we review the role of brain-derived estrogens (neuroestrogens) as modulators within sensory circuits in songbirds. We first present songbirds as an attractive model to explore how neuroestrogens in auditory cortex modulate vocal communication processing and learning. Further, we examine how estrogens may enhance vocal learning and auditory memory consolidation in sensory cortex via mechanisms similar to those found in the hippocampus of rodents and birds. Finally, we propose future directions for investigation, including: 1) the extent of developmental and hemispheric shifts in aromatase and membrane estrogen receptor expression in auditory circuits; 2) how neuroestrogens may impact inhibitory interneurons to regulate audition and critical period plasticity; and, 3) dendritic spine plasticity as a candidate mechanism mediating estrogen-dependent effects on vocal learning. Together, this perspective of estrogens as neuromodulators in the vertebrate brain has opened new avenues in understanding sensory plasticity, including how hormones can act on communication circuits to influence behaviors in other vocal learning species, such as in language acquisition and speech processing in humans.