Sexual behavior and sex-associated environmental cues activate the mesolimbic system in male rats

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2004 Apr;29(4):718-30. doi: 10.1038/sj.npp.1300350.


The mesolimbic system plays an important role in the regulation of both pathological behaviors such as drug addiction and normal motivated behaviors such as sexual behavior. The present study investigated the mechanism by which this system is endogenously activated during sexual behavior. Specifically, the effects of sexual experience and sex-related environmental cues on the activation of several components of the mesolimbic system were studied. The mesolimbic system consists of a dopaminergic projection from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Previous studies suggest that these neurons are under tonic inhibition by local GABA interneurons, which are in turn modulated by mu opioid receptor (MOR) ligands. To test the hypothesis that opioids are acting in the VTA during sexual behavior, visualization of MOR internalization in VTA was used as a marker for ligand-induced activation of the receptor. Significant increases in MOR internalization were observed following copulation or exposure to sex-related environmental cues. The next goal was to determine if sexual behavior activates dopamine neurons in the VTA, using tyrosine hydroxylase as a marker for dopaminergic neurons and Fos-immunoreactivity as a marker for neuronal activation. Significant increases in the percentage of activated dopaminergic neurons were observed following copulation or exposure to sex-related environmental cues. In addition, mating and sex-related cues activated a large population of nondopaminergic neurons in VTA as well as neurons in both the NAc Core and Shell. Taken together, our results provide functional neuroanatomical evidence that the mesolimbic system is activated by both sexual behavior and exposure to sex-related environmental cues.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Cell Count
  • Cues*
  • Environment*
  • Glutamate Decarboxylase / metabolism
  • Immunohistochemistry / methods
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Nucleus Accumbens / cytology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / metabolism
  • Sex*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / cytology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Glutamate Decarboxylase