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Horm Behav. 2004 Aug;46(2):165-70.

Testosterone reduces responsiveness to nociceptive stimuli in a wild bird.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.


The hormone testosterone (T) is involved in the control of aggressive behavior in male vertebrates. T enhances the frequency and intensity of aggressive behaviors during competitive interactions among males. By promoting high-intensity aggression, T also increases the risk of injury and presumably the perception of painful stimuli. However, perception of painful stimuli during fights could counteract the expression of further aggressive behavior. We therefore hypothesize that one function of T during aggressive interactions is to reduce nociception (pain sensitivity). Here, we experimentally document that T indeed reduces behavioral responsiveness to a thermal painful stimulus in captive male house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Skin nociception was quantified by foot immersion into a hot water bath, a benign thermal stimulus. Males treated with exogenous testosterone left their foot longer in hot water than control birds. Conversely, males in which the physiological actions of testosterone were pharmacologically blocked withdrew their foot faster than control birds. Testosterone might exert its effects on pain sensitivity through conversion into estradiol in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Decreased nociception during aggressive encounters may promote the immediate and future willingness of males to engage in high-intensity fights.

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