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J Neuroendocrinol. 2019 Sep 12:e12793. doi: 10.1111/jne.12793. [Epub ahead of print]

How does testosterone act to regulate a multifaceted adaptive response? Lessons from studies of the avian song system.

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Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA.
GIGA Neurosciences, University of Liège, Liège, Belgium.
Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.


In male songbirds, song functions to attract a mate or to defend a territory; it is therefore often produced in the context of reproduction. Testosterone of gonadal origin increases during the reproductive phase of the annual cycle and significantly enhances song production, as well as song development, via effects on song crystallisation. The neural control of birdsong production and learning is highly modular. We implanted testosterone or androgen antagonists into specific brain regions or in the periphery of castrated male canaries and, in this way, identified how androgen signalling in specific locations regulates a variety of birdsong features. For example, castrated male canaries treated with testosterone in the preoptic area only and exposed to long days sing at high rates compared to castrated male canaries not treated with testosterone. However, these birds with testosterone in the preoptic area still produce songs with substantially lower song stereotypy and amplitude; these features are controlled by testosterone acting in the song control nuclei HVC and robust nucleus of the arcopallium. Specific aspects of the learned singing behaviour are thus regulated by androgens acting at multiple levels in the brain in a non-redundant fashion. The action of testosterone in the preoptic area is related to the hormonal regulation of the motivation to sing but not to various aspects of song performance. Multiple aspects of song quality are instead precisely regulated by steroids acting in distinct song control nuclei. Females exert a strong choice for specific features of male song in canaries and this choice is influenced by the endocrine state of the female. The female song system is also involved in song production, as well as song perception, although the specificity of this hormone action has not yet been investigated.


HVC; medial preoptic nucleus; song control system; songbirds; testosterone


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