Androgens and estrogens induce seasonal-like growth of song nuclei in the adult songbird brain

J Neurobiol. 2003 Nov;57(2):130-40. doi: 10.1002/neu.10263.


In seasonally breeding songbirds, the brain regions that control song behavior undergo dramatic structural changes at the onset of each annual breeding season. As spring approaches and days get longer, gonadal testosterone (T) secretion increases and triggers the growth of several song control nuclei. T can be converted to androgenic and estrogenic metabolites by enzymes expressed in the brain. This opens the possibility that the effects of T may be mediated via the androgen receptor, the estrogen receptor, or both. To test this hypothesis, we examined the effects of two bioactive T metabolites on song nucleus growth and song behavior in adult male white-crowned sparrows. Castrated sparrows with regressed song control nuclei were implanted with silastic capsules containing either crystalline T, 5alpha-dihydrotestosterone (DHT), estradiol (E(2)), or a combination of DHT+E(2). Control animals received empty implants. Song production was highly variable within treatment groups. Only one of seven birds treated with E(2) alone was observed singing, whereas a majority of birds with T or DHT sang. After 37 days of exposure to sex steroids, we measured the volumes of the forebrain song nucleus HVc, the robust nucleus of the archistriatum (RA), and a basal ganglia homolog (area X). All three steroid treatments increased the volumes of these three song nuclei when compared to blank-implanted controls. These data demonstrate that androgen and estrogen receptor binding are sufficient to trigger seasonal song nucleus growth. These data also suggest that T's effects on seasonal song nucleus growth may depend, in part, upon enzymatic conversion of T to bioactive metabolites.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / blood
  • Androgens / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology
  • Dihydrotestosterone / blood
  • Dihydrotestosterone / pharmacology
  • Estradiol / blood
  • Estradiol / pharmacology
  • Estrogens / blood
  • Estrogens / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Orchiectomy
  • Seasons
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / drug effects
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens
  • Dihydrotestosterone
  • Estradiol