Sexual incentive motivation, olfactory preference, and activation of the vomeronasal projection pathway by sexually relevant cues in non-copulating and naive male rats

Horm Behav. 2004 Sep;46(3):330-40. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2004.03.001.


There are some apparently healthy male rats that fail to mate after repeated testing with receptive females. We have previously shown that these "non-copulator (NC)" males show no partner preference for a receptive female when given the opportunity to physically interact with a sexually receptive female or a sexually active male. We also demonstrated that although NC males prefer odors from estrous females to odors from anestrous females, this preference is significantly reduced in comparison to the preference displayed by copulating (C) males. The aim of the present study was to evaluate in NC males sexual incentive motivation, that is, the approach behavior of male rats to either a sexually receptive female or a sexually active male in a test where the subjects can smell, hear, and see the stimulus animal but prevents their physical interaction. In addition, we determined whether NC rats have alterations in their ability to detect odors from conspecifics or odors related to food. In the detection of odors from conspecifics, we determined if these NC males are sexually attracted toward odors from receptive females or sexually active males. For food-related odors, we quantified the time it took the subjects to locate a hidden a piece of apple. Finally, using the induction of Fos-immunoreactivity (Fos-IR) as an index of neuronal activation, we compared the response of the vomeronasal projection pathway (VN pathway) of C and NC male rats exposed to estrous bedding. Males without sexual experience (WSE) were included in all experiments to determine the importance of previous heterosexual experience in the different behavioral tests and in the activity of the VN pathway. In the sexual incentive motivation test, we found that C and WSE male rats have a clear preference for estrous females over sexually active males, whereas NC male rats showed no preference. In odor tests, our results showed that C males had a clear preference for odors from estrous females as opposed to odors from sexually active males. Although NC and WSE male rats showed a preference for estrous female odors, this preference was significantly reduced compared to that shown by C males. No differences were found between WSE, C, and NC males in the detection of stimuli associated with food-related odors. A significant increase in Fos-IR was observed in the mitral cell layer of the accessory olfactory bulb in all groups when exposed to estrous bedding. However, only the C male rats exposed to estrous female bedding showed an increase Fos-IR in all structures of the VN pathway. An increase in Fos-IR was observed in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of WSE males exposed to estrous bedding. No increases in Fos-IR were detected along the VN pathway in NC male rats. We proposed that NC male rats do not display sexual behavior due to a reduced sexual motivation that could be caused by alterations in the neuronal activity of the VN pathway during the processing of estrous odors.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Copulation / physiology
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Male
  • Motivation*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Olfactory Bulb / cytology
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology
  • Olfactory Pathways / cytology
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Random Allocation
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Vomeronasal Organ / cytology
  • Vomeronasal Organ / innervation
  • Vomeronasal Organ / physiology*


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos