Date of Award

Summer 5-20-2013

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Neuroscience Institute

First Advisor

Aras Petrulis

Second Advisor

Elliott Albers

Abstract

In most animal species, reproductive success depends critically on precopulatory or solicitational behaviors that occur prior to mating. The specific sensory systems and behavioral strategies employed in precopulatory behaviors vary across species; in all cases, however, animals must be able to identify potential mating partners and solicit sexual interest. Female Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) engage in multiple forms of precopulatory behaviors that are preferentially expressed to males or their odors, including vaginal scent marking and sexual odor preference. Conspecific odors relevant for precopulatory behaviors are processed by a network of forebrain areas that includes the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) and the medial preoptic area (MPOA). The precise functional and neurochemical mechanisms whereby these areas regulate the expression of precopulatory behaviors, however, are unknown. Therefore, the aim of this dissertation is to address the following research questions: (1) Is the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT), acting within BNST or MPOA, necessary for the normal expression of odor-­guided precopulatory behaviors? (2) Is BNST or (3) MPOA required for the preferential expression of vaginal marking or investigation towards male odors?, and (4) Does OT interact with social odor processing to regulate vaginal marking? We found that blockade of OT receptors (OTRs) in MPOA and BNST decreased vaginal marking to male odors. There was no effect of OTR blockade on sexual odor preference. Selective lesions of BNST also disrupted preferential vaginal marking responses to male odors, without affecting sexual odor preference. In contrast, lesions of MPOA disrupted odor preference without affecting vaginal marking responses. Finally, central blockade of OTRs eliminated the normal pattern of increased activation of neurons to male vs. female odors in BNST, but not MPOA. Considered together, these results suggest that OT normally acts within BNST to drive preferential vaginal marking responses to male odors via selective facilitation of neural responses to these odors, and further, that there are separate and distinct neural circuits that regulate different forms of odor-guided precopulatory behaviors in females.

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