Individual differences in the motivation to communicate relate to levels of midbrain and striatal catecholamine markers in male European starlings

Horm Behav. 2011 Nov;60(5):529-39. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.08.001. Epub 2011 Aug 31.


Individuals display dramatic differences in social communication even within similar social contexts. Across vertebrates dopaminergic projections from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and midbrain central gray (GCt) strongly influence motivated, reward-directed behaviors. Norepinephrine is also rich in these areas and may alter dopamine neuronal activity. The present study was designed to provide insight into the roles of dopamine and norepinephrine in VTA and GCt and their efferent striatal target, song control region area X, in the regulation of individual differences in the motivation to sing. We used high pressure liquid chromatography with electrochemical detection to measure dopamine, norepinephrine and their metabolites in micropunched samples from VTA, GCt, and area X in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). We categorized males as sexually motivated or non-sexually motivated based on individual differences in song produced in response to a female. Dopamine markers and norepinephrine in VTA and dopamine in area X correlated positively with sexually-motivated song. Norepinephrine in area X correlated negatively with non-sexually-motivated song. Dopamine in GCt correlated negatively with sexually-motivated song, and the metabolite DOPAC correlated positively with non-sexually-motivated song. Results highlight a role for evolutionarily conserved dopaminergic projections from VTA to striatum in the motivation to communicate and highlight novel patterns of catecholamine activity in area X, VTA, and GCt associated with individual differences in sexually-motivated and non-sexually-motivated communication. Correlations between dopamine and norepinephrine markers also suggest that norepinephrine may contribute to individual differences in communication by modifying dopamine neuronal activity in VTA and GCt.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine / analysis
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Female
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Mesencephalon / metabolism
  • Mesencephalon / physiology*
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Neostriatum / metabolism
  • Neostriatum / physiology*
  • Norepinephrine / analysis
  • Norepinephrine / metabolism
  • Starlings / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine