Cryptic sexual dimorphism in spatial memory and hippocampal oxytocin receptors in prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster)

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Sex differences are well documented and are conventionally associated with intense sex-specific selection. For example, spatial memory is frequently better in males, presumably due to males' tendency to navigate large spaces to find mates. Alternatively, monogamy (in which sex-specific selection is relatively relaxed) should diminish or eliminate differences in spatial ability and the mechanisms associated with this behavior. Nevertheless, phenotypic differences between monogamous males and females persist, sometimes cryptically. We hypothesize that sex-specific cognitive demands are present in monogamous species that will influence neural and behavioral phenotypes. The effects of these demands should be observable in spatial learning performance and neural structures associated with spatial learning and memory. We analyzed spatial memory performance, hippocampal volume and cell density, and hippocampal oxytocin receptor (OTR) expression in the socially monogamous prairie vole. Compared to females, males performed better in a spatial memory and spatial learning test. Although we found no sex difference in hippocampal volume or cell density, male OTR density was significantly lower than females, suggesting that performance may be regulated by sub-cellular mechanisms within the hippocampus that are less obvious than classic neuroanatomical features. Our results suggest an expanded role for oxytocin beyond facilitating social interactions, which may function in part to integrate social and spatial information.

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