Animals prioritize behaviors according to their physiological needs and reproductive goals, selecting a single behavioral strategy from a repertoire of possible responses to any given stimulus. Biological sex influences this decision-making process in significant ways, differentiating the responses animals choose when faced with stimuli ranging from food to conspecifics. We review here recent work in invertebrate models, including C. elegans, Drosophila, and a variety of insects, mollusks and crustaceans, that has begun to offer intriguing insights into the neural mechanisms underlying the sexual modulation of behavioral decision-making. These findings show that an animal's sex can modulate neural function in surprisingly diverse ways, much like internal physiological variables such as hunger or thirst. In the context of homeostatic behaviors such as feeding, an animal's sex and nutritional status may converge on a common physiological mechanism, the functional modulation of shared sensory circuitry, to influence decision-making. Similarly, considerable evidence suggests that decisions on whether to mate or fight with conspecifics are also mediated through sex-specific neuromodulatory control of nominally shared neural circuits. This work offers a new perspective on how sex differences in behavior emerge, in which the regulated function of shared neural circuitry plays a crucial role. Emerging evidence from vertebrates indicates that this paradigm is likely to extend to more complex nervous systems as well. As men and women differ in their susceptibility to a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders affecting shared behaviors, these findings may ultimately have important implications for human health.
Keywords: Sex differences, Neuromodulation, Decision-making, Invertebrates, Neuroscience, Neural circuits, Neuroethology