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1.  Removal of reproductive suppression reveals latent sex differences in brain steroid hormone receptors in naked mole-rats, Heterocephalus glaber 
Naked mole-rats are eusocial mammals, living in large colonies with a single breeding female and 1–3 breeding males. Breeders are socially dominant, and only the breeders exhibit traditional sex differences in circulating gonadal steroid hormones and reproductive behaviors. Non-reproductive subordinates also fail to show sex differences in overall body size, external genital morphology, and non-reproductive behaviors. However, subordinates can transition to breeding status if removed from their colony and housed with an opposite-sex conspecific, suggesting the presence of latent sex differences. Here, we assessed the expression of steroid hormone receptor and aromatase messenger RNA (mRNA) in the brains of males and females as they transitioned in social and reproductive status.
We compared in-colony subordinates to opposite-sex subordinate pairs that were removed from their colony for either 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, or until they became breeders (i.e., produced a litter). Diencephalic tissue was collected and mRNA of androgen receptor (Ar), estrogen receptor alpha (Esr1), progesterone receptor (Pgr), and aromatase (Cyp19a1) was measured using qPCR. Testosterone, 17β-estradiol, and progesterone from serum were also measured.
As early as 1 week post-removal, males exhibited increased diencephalic Ar mRNA and circulating testosterone, whereas females had increased Cyp19a1 mRNA in the diencephalon. At 1 month post-removal, females exhibited increased 17β-estradiol and progesterone. The largest changes in steroid hormone receptors were observed in breeders. Breeding females had a threefold increase in Cyp19a1 and fivefold increases in Esr1 and Pgr, whereas breeding males had reduced Pgr and increased Ar.
These data demonstrate that sex differences in circulating gonadal steroids and hypothalamic gene expression emerge weeks to months after subordinate animals are removed from reproductive suppression in their home colony.
PMCID: PMC4676092  PMID: 26693002
Androgen receptor; Aromatase; Estradiol; Estrogen receptor; Eusocial; Naked mole-rat; Progesterone receptor; Reproductive suppression; Sex difference; Testosterone
2.  Effects of Bax Gene Deletion on Social Behaviors and Neural Response to Olfactory Cues in Mice 
The European journal of neuroscience  2011;34(9):1492-1499.
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.
PMCID: PMC3205466  PMID: 22034980
cell death; c-Fos; olfactory preference; sex difference
3.  Social Status and Sex Effects on Neural Morphology in Damaraland Mole-Rats, Fukomys damarensis 
Brain, Behavior and Evolution  2011;77(4):291-298.
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.
PMCID: PMC3182041  PMID: 21701152
Bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; Damaraland mole-rat; Medial amygdala; Naked mole-rat; Onuf's nucleus; Paraventricular nucleus; Sex difference; Social status
4.  Social and Hormonal Triggers of Neural Plasticity in Naked Mole-Rats 
Behavioural brain research  2010;218(1):234-239.
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.
PMCID: PMC3022096  PMID: 21130812
bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; naked mole-rat; neuroplasticity; Onuf’s nucleus; paraventricular nucleus; social status
5.  Neuroendocrinology and Sexual Differentiation in Eusocial Mammals 
Frontiers in neuroendocrinology  2009;30(4):519-533.
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.
PMCID: PMC2748139  PMID: 19416733
naked mole-rat; Damaraland mole-rat; sex difference; social status; reproductive hierarchy; eusociality; social system
6.  Sex Differences in NeuN- and Androgen Receptor-Positive Cells in the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis are due to Bax-Dependent Cell Death 
Neuroscience  2008;158(4):1251-1256.
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.
PMCID: PMC2646815  PMID: 19059313
apoptosis; cell death; differentiation; GFAP; sex difference; testosterone
Hormones and behavior  2008;54(2):278-285.
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.
PMCID: PMC2630401  PMID: 18455726
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

Results 1-7 (7)