In honor of the 50th anniversary of the “organizational hypothesis,” this paper reviews work on sexual differentiation of the spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. Topics considered include the spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus, the ejaculation center, the cremaster nucleus, sensory and autonomic neurons, and pain. These relatively simple neural systems offer ample confirmation that early exposure to testicular hormones masculinizes the nervous system, including final common pathways. However, I also discuss findings that challenge, or at least stretch, the organizational hypothesis, with important implications for understanding sex differences throughout the nervous system.
The hormonal control of cell death is currently the best-established mechanism for creating sex differences in cell number in the brain and spinal cord. For example, males have more cells than do females in the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNSTp) and spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus (SNB), whereas females have a cell number advantage in the anteroventral periventricular nucleus (AVPV). In each case, the difference in cell number in adulthood correlates with a sex difference in the number of dying cells at some point in development. Mice with over- or under-expression of cell death genes have recently been used to test more directly the contribution of cell death to neural sex differences, to identify molecular mechanisms involved, and to determine the behavioural consequences of suppressing developmental cell death. Bax is a pro-death gene of the Bcl-2 family that is singularly important for apoptosis in neural development. In mice lacking bax, the number of cells in the BNSTp, SNB, and AVPV are significantly increased and sex differences in total cell number in each of these regions are eliminated. Cells rescued by bax gene deletion in the BNSTp express markers of differentiated neurones and the androgen receptor. On the other hand, sex differences in other phenotypically identified populations, such as vasopressin-expressing neurones in the BNSTp or dopaminergic neurones in AVPV, are not affected by either bax deletion or bcl-2 over-expression. Possible mechanisms by which testosterone may regulate cell death in the nervous system are discussed, as are the behavioural effects of eliminating sex differences in neuronal cell number.
sex difference; cell death; bax; bcl-2; androgen; oestrogen
Bax is a pro-death protein that plays a crucial role in developmental neuronal cell death. Bax−/− mice exhibit increased neuron number and the elimination of several neural sex differences. Here we examined the effects of Bax gene deletion on social behaviors (olfactory preference, social recognition, social approach, and aggression) and the neural processing of olfactory cues. Bax deletion eliminated the normal sex difference in olfactory preference behavior. In the social recognition test, both genotypes discriminated a novel conspecific, but wildtype males and Bax−/− animals of both sexes spent much more time than wildtype females investigating stimulus animals. Similarly, Bax−/− mice were more sociable than wildtype mice in a social approach test. Bax deletion had no effect on aggression in a resident/intruder paradigm where males, regardless of genotype, exhibited a shorter latency to attack. Thus, the prevention of neuronal cell death by Bax gene deletion results in greater sociability as well as the elimination of sex differences in some social behaviors. To examine olfactory processing of socially relevant cues, we counted c-Fos immunoreactive (Fos-ir) cells in several nodes of the accessory olfactory pathway after exposure to male-soiled or control bedding. In both genotypes, exposure to male-soiled bedding increased Fos-ir cells in the posterodorsal medial amygdala, principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, and medial preoptic nucleus (MPN), and the response in the MPN was greater in females than in males. However, a reduction in Fos-ir cells was seen in the anteroventral periventricular nucleus of Bax−/− mice.
cell death; c-Fos; olfactory preference; sex difference
Recent findings demonstrate that epigenetic modifications are required for sexual differentiation of the brain. For example, neonatal administration of the histone deacetylase inhibitor, valproic acid, blocks masculinisation of cell number in the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST). Here we examined effects of valproic acid on neurochemistry and behaviour, focusing on traits that are sexually dimorphic and linked to the BNST. Newborn mice were treated with saline or valproic acid and the effect on vasopressin immunoreactivity and olfactory preference behavior examined in adulthood. As expected, males had more vasopressin immunoreactive fibers than females in the lateral septum and medial dorsal thalamus, two projection sites of BNST vasopressin neurons. Neonatal valproic acid increased vasopressin fiber density specifically in females in the lateral septum, thereby reducing the sex difference, and increased vasopressin fibers in both sexes in the medial dorsal thalamus. Effects were not specific to BNST vasopressin projections, however, as valproic acid also significantly increased vasopressin immunoreactivity in the anterior hypothalamic area in both sexes. Subtle sex-specific effects of neonatal valproic acid treatment were observed on olfactory behavior. As predicted, males showed a preference for investigating female-soiled bedding whereas females showed a preference for male-soiled bedding. Valproic acid did not significantly alter olfactory preference, per se, but increased the number of visits females made to female-soiled bedding and the overall time females spent investigating soiled versus clean bedding. Taken together, these results suggest that a transient disruption of histone deacetylation at birth does not have generalized effects on sexual differentiation, but does produce lasting effects on brain neurochemistry and behaviour.
We previously reported that in a eusocial rodent, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), traditional neural sex differences were absent; instead, neural dimorphisms were associated with breeding status. Here we examined the same neural regions previously studied in naked mole-rats in a second eusocial species, the Damaraland mole-rat (Fukomys damarensis). Damaraland mole-rats live in social groups with breeding restricted to a small number of animals. However, colony sizes are much smaller in Damaraland mole-rats than in naked mole-rats and there is consequently less reproductive skew. In this sense, Damaraland mole-rats may be considered intermediate in social organization between naked mole-rats and more traditional laboratory rodents. We report that, as in naked mole-rats, breeding Damaraland mole-rats have larger volumes of the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus than do subordinates, with no effect of sex on these measures. Thus, these structures may play special roles in breeders of eusocial species. However, in contrast to what was seen in naked mole-rats, we also found sex differences in Damaraland mole-rats: volume of the medial amygdala and motoneuron number in Onuf's nucleus were both greater in males than in females, with no significant effect of breeding status. Thus, both sex and breeding status influence neural morphology in Damaraland mole-rats. These findings are in accord with the observed sex differences in body weight and genitalia in Damaraland but not naked mole-rats. We hypothesize that the increased sexual dimorphism in Damaraland mole-rats relative to naked mole-rats is related to reduced reproductive skew.
Bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; Damaraland mole-rat; Medial amygdala; Naked mole-rat; Onuf's nucleus; Paraventricular nucleus; Sex difference; Social status
Naked mole-rats are eusocial rodents that live in large social groups with a strict reproductive hierarchy. In each colony only a few individuals breed; all others are non-reproductive subordinates. We previously showed that breeders have increased volume of several brain regions linked to reproduction: the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTp), and the medial amygdala (MeA). Breeders also have more large motoneurons in Onuf’s nucleus (ON) in the spinal cord, a cell group innervating perineal muscles that attach to the genitalia. Here, we sought to determine triggers for the neural changes seen in breeders. Specifically, we compared four groups of animals: subordinates, paired animals that did not reproduce, gonadally intact breeders, and gonadectomized breeders. We find that pairing alone is sufficient to cause breeder-like changes in volume of the PVN and cell size distribution in ON. In contrast, increases in BSTp volume were seen only in animals that actually reproduced. Those changes that were seen in successful breeders appear to be independent of gonadal steroids because long-term gonadectomy did not reverse the breeder-like neural changes in the PVN, BSTp or ON, although a trend for gonadectomized animals having larger MeA volumes was detected. Thus, neural changes associated with breeding status in naked mole-rats may be triggered by different aspects of the social and reproductive environment; once changes occur they are largely independent of gonadal hormones and may be permanent.
bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; naked mole-rat; neuroplasticity; Onuf’s nucleus; paraventricular nucleus; social status
Calbindin-D28 has been used as a marker for the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area (SDN-POA). Males have a distinct cluster of calbindin-immunoreactive (ir) cells in the medial preoptic area (CALB-SDN) that is reduced or absent in females. However, it is not clear whether the sex difference is due to the absolute number of calbindin-ir cells or to cell position (that is, spread), and the cellular mechanisms underlying the sex difference are not known. We examined the number of cells in the CALB-SDN and surrounding regions of C57Bl/6 mice and used mice lacking the pro-death gene, Bax, to test the hypothesis that observed sex differences are due to cell death.
Experiment 1 compared the number of cells in the CALB-SDN and surrounding regions in adult males, females, and females injected with estradiol benzoate on the day of birth. In experiment 2, cell number in the CALB-SDN and adjacent regions were compared in wild-type and Bax knockout mice of both sexes. In addition, calbindin-ir cells were quantified within the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNSTp), a nearby region that is larger in males due to Bax-dependent cell death.
Males had more cells in the CALB-SDN as well as in surrounding regions than did females, and estradiol treatment of females at birth masculinized both measures. Bax deletion had no effect on cell number in the CALB-SDN or surrounding regions but increased calbindin-ir cell number in the BNSTp.
The sex difference in the CALB-SDN of mice results from an estrogen-dependent difference in cell number with no evidence found for greater spread of cells in females. Blocking Bax-dependent cell death does not prevent sex differences in calbindin-ir cell number in the BNST or CALB-SDN but increases calbindin-ir cell number in the BNSTp of both sexes.
Bax; bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; calbindin; cell death; preoptic area; sex difference
Sex differences in the nervous system are found throughout the animal kingdom. Here, we discuss three prominent genetic models: nematodes, fruit flies, and mice. In all three, differential cell death is central to sexual differentiation and shared molecular mechanisms have been identified. Our knowledge of the precise function of neural sex differences lags behind. One fruitful approach to the “function” question is to contrast sexual differentiation in standard laboratory animals with differentiation in species exhibiting unique social and reproductive organizations. Advanced genetic strategies are also addressing this question in worms and flies, and may soon be applicable to vertebrates.
Sexual differentiation of the mammalian nervous system has been studied intensively for over 25 years. Most of what we know, however, comes from work on relatively non-social species in which direct reproduction (i.e., production of offspring) is virtually the only route to reproductive success. In social species, an individual’s inclusive fitness may include contributions to the gene pool that are achieved by supporting the reproductive efforts of close relatives; this feature is most evident in eusocial organisms. Here, we review what is known about neuroendocrine mechanisms, sexual differentiation, and effects of social status on the brain and spinal cord in two eusocial mammals: the naked mole-rat and Damaraland mole-rat. These small rodents exhibit the most rigidly organized reproductive hierarchy among mammals, with reproduction suppressed in a majority of individuals. Our findings suggest that eusociality may be associated with a relative lack of sex differences and a reduced influence of gonadal hormones on some functions to which these hormones are usually tightly linked. We also identify neural changes accompanying a change in social and reproductive status, and discuss the implications of our findings for understanding the evolution of sex differences and the neuroendocrinology of reproductive suppression.
naked mole-rat; Damaraland mole-rat; sex difference; social status; reproductive hierarchy; eusociality; social system
Epigenetic changes in the nervous system are emerging as a critical component of enduring effects induced by early life experience, hormonal exposure, trauma and injury or learning and memory. Sex differences in the brain are largely determined by steroid hormone exposure during a perinatal sensitive period that alters subsequent hormonal and non-hormonal responses throughout the life span. Steroid receptors are members of a nuclear receptor transcription factor superfamily and recruit multiple proteins that possess enzymatic activity relevant to epigenetic changes such as acetylation and methylation. Thus steroid hormones are uniquely poised to exert epigenetic effects on the developing nervous system to dictate adult sex differences in brain and behavior. Sex differences in the methylation pattern in the promoter of estrogen and progesterone receptor genes are evident in newborns and persist in adults but with a different pattern. Changes in response to injury and in methyl binding proteins and steroid receptor coregulatory proteins are also reported. Many steroid-induced epigenetic changes are opportunistic and restricted to a single lifespan but new evidence suggests endocrine disrupting compounds can exert multigenerational effects. Similarly, maternal diet also induces transgenerational effects but the impact is sex specific. The study of epigenetics of sex differences is in its earliest stages, with needed advances in understanding of the hormonal regulation of enzymes controlling acetylation and methylation, coregulatory proteins, transient versus stable DNA methylation patterns and sex differences across the epigenome in order to fully understand sex differences in brain and behavior.
The principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNSTp) is larger in males than in females of several species. We previously demonstrated that in mice lacking the pro-death gene, bax, total BNSTp cell number is increased and sex differences in cell number are eliminated. This suggests that Bax-dependent cell death underlies sexual differentiation of the BNSTp. However, it is not known what cells in the BNSTp are affected by bax deletion. Here we used immunohistochemistry and stereological techniques to quantify phenotypically-identified cells in the BNSTp of adult male and female bax -/- and bax +/+ mice. Sections were thionin-stained, or double-labeled for NeuN and GFAP to identify mature neurons and astrocytes, respectively; an additional series was labeled for androgen receptor (AR). As previously demonstrated, sex differences in BNSTp area and overall cell number were seen in wildtype mice, but absent in bax -/- animals. In addition, sex differences (favoring males) were present in the number of NeuN+ and AR+ cells in wildtype mice. Bax gene deletion significantly increased the number of NeuN+ and AR+ cells and reduced or eliminated the sex differences in these cell types. The number of astrocytes in the BNSTp was not sexually dimorphic, nor significantly affected by bax gene status, although there was a trend for more GFAP+ cells in bax -/- mice. Overall brain weight was also greater in bax -/- animals compared to controls. We conclude that the sex differences in neuron and AR+ cell number are due at least in part to Bax-mediated cell death. Increased NeuN+ and AR+ cell number in bax -/- mice suggests that supernumerary cells in bax knockouts differentiate similarly to those in wildtype mice, and retain the capacity to respond to androgens.
apoptosis; cell death; differentiation; GFAP; sex difference; testosterone
African mole-rats (Bathyergidae, Rodentia) exhibit a wide range of social structures, from solitary to eusocial. We previously found a lack of sex differences in the external genitalia and morphology of the perineal muscles associated with the phallus in the eusocial naked mole-rat. This was quite surprising, as the external genitalia and perineal muscles are sexually dimorphic in all other mammals examined. We hypothesized that the lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats might be related to their unusual social structure.
We compared the genitalia and perineal muscles in three African mole-rat species: the naked mole-rat, the solitary silvery mole-rat, and the Damaraland mole-rat, a species considered to be eusocial, but with less reproductive skew than naked mole-rats. Our findings support a relationship between social structure, mating system, and sexual differentiation. Naked mole-rats lack sex differences in genitalia and perineal morphology, silvery mole-rats exhibit sex differences, and Damaraland mole-rats are intermediate.
The lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats is not an attribute of all African mole-rats, but appears to have evolved in relation to their unusual social structure and reproductive biology.
Naked mole-rats are highly social rodents that live in large colonies characterized by a rigid social and reproductive hierarchy. Only one female, the queen, breeds. Most colony members are non-reproductive subordinates that work cooperatively to rear the young and maintain an underground burrow system. Little is known about the neurobiological basis of the complex sociality exhibited by this species. The neuropeptide oxytocin (Oxt) modulates social bonding and other social behaviors in many vertebrates. Here we examined the distribution of Oxt immunoreactivity in the brains of male and female naked mole-rats. As in other species, the majority of Oxt-immunoreactive (Oxt-ir) cells were found in the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei, with additional labeled cells scattered throughout the preoptic and anterior hypothalamic areas. Oxt-ir fibers were found traveling toward and through the median eminence, as well as in the tenia tecta, septum, and nucleus of diagonal band of Broca. A moderate network of fibers covered the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and preoptic area, and a particularly dense fiber innervation of the nucleus accumbens and substantia innominata was observed. In the brainstem, Oxt-ir fibers were found in the periaqueductal grey, locus coeruleus, parabrachial nucleus, nucleus of the solitary tract, and nuclueus ambiguus. The high levels of Oxt immunoreactivity in the nucleus accumbens and preoptic area are intriguing, given the link in other rodents between Oxt signaling in these regions and maternal behavior. Although only the queen gives birth or nurses pups in a naked mole-rat colony, most individuals actively participate in pup care.
sex differences; social hierarchy; naked mole-rat; Heterocephalus glaber; sociality; vasopressin
Naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are eusocial rodents that live in large subterranean colonies including a single breeding female and 1-3 breeding males; all other members of the colony, known as subordinates, are reproductively suppressed. We recently found that naked mole-rats lack many of the sex differences in the brain and spinal cord commonly found in other rodents. Instead, neural morphology is influenced by breeding status, such that breeders, regardless of sex, have more neurons than subordinates in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (VMH), and larger overall volumes of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST), paraventricular nucleus (PVN) and medial amygdala (MeA). To begin to understand how breeding status influences brain morphology, we examined the distribution of androgen receptor (AR) immunoreactivity in gonadally intact breeders and subordinates of both sexes. All animals had AR+ nuclei in many of the same regions positive for AR in other mammals, including the VMH, BST, PVN, MeA, and the ventral portion of the premammillary nucleus (PMv). We also observed diffuse labeling throughout the pre-optic area demonstrating that distribution of the AR protein in presumptive reproductive brain nuclei is well-conserved, even in a species that exhibits remarkably little sexual dimorphism. In contrast to other rodents, however, naked mole-rats lacked AR+ nuclei in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and hippocampus. Males had more AR+ nuclei in the MeA, VMH, and PMv than did females. Surprisingly, breeders had significantly fewer AR+ nuclei than subordinates in all brain regions examined (VMH, BST, PVN, MeA, and PMv). Thus, social status is strongly correlated with AR immunoreactivity in this eusocial species.
androgen receptor; bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; medial amygdala; naked mole-rat; paraventricular nucleus; plasticity; premammillary nucleus; sex difference; social status; testosterone; ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus
Cell number in the spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus (SNB) of rats was the first neural sex difference shown to differentiate under the control of androgens, acting via classical intracellular androgen receptors. SNB motoneurons reside in the lumbar spinal cord and innervate striated muscles involved in copulation, including the bulbocavernosus (BC) and levator ani (LA). SNB cells are much larger and more numerous in males than in females, and the BC/LA target muscles are reduced or absent in females. The relative simplicity of this neuromuscular system has allowed for considerable progress in pinpointing sites of hormone action, and identifying the cellular bases for androgenic effects. It is now clear that androgens act at virtually every level of the SNB system, in development and throughout adult life. In this review we focus on effects of androgens on developmental cell death of SNB motoneurons and BC/LA muscles; the establishment and maintenance of SNB motoneuron soma size and dendritic length; BC/LA muscle morphology and physiology; and behaviors controlled by the SNB system. We also describe new data on neurotherapeutic effects of androgens on SNB motoneurons after injury in adulthood.
Motoneuron; Bulbocavernosus; Levator ani; Androgen; Neuromuscular; Dendrite; Sexual differentiation; Cell death; Testosterone; Dihydrotestosterone
The bulbocavernosus (BC) and levator ani (LA) muscles are present in males but absent or severely reduced in females, and the fate of these muscles controls the survival of motoneurons in the sexually dimorphic spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus. However, the mechanism underlying the sex difference in BC and LA development has been controversial. We examined the role of cell death in sexual differentiation of the bulbocavernosus BC/LA muscles in mice. Muscle development was mapped from embryonic day 16 (E16) to postnatal day 5 (P5). A sex difference (male > female) first arose on E17 (BC) or E18 (LA), and increased in magnitude postnatally. TUNEL labeling revealed dying cells in the BC and LA muscles of both sexes perinatally. However, females had a significantly higher density of TUNEL-positive cells than did males. A role for the proapoptotic factors, Bax and Bak, in BC/LA development was tested by examining mice lacking one or both of these proteins. In females lacking either Bax or Bak, the BC was absent and the LA rudimentary. Deletion of both bax and bak genes, however, rescued the BC, increased LA size ∼20-fold relative to controls, and virtually eliminated TUNEL-positive cells in both muscles. We conclude that cell death plays an essential role in sexual differentiation of the BC/LA muscles. The presence of either Bax or Bak is sufficient for cell death in the BC/LA, whereas the absence of both prevents sexually dimorphic muscle cell death.
bulbocavernosus; cell death; sex difference; bax; bak