The role of motivation and reward neural systems in vocal communication in songbirds

Front Neuroendocrinol. 2012 Apr;33(2):194-209. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2012.04.002. Epub 2012 Apr 30.


Many vertebrates are highly motivated to communicate, suggesting that the consequences of communication may be rewarding. Past studies show that dopamine and opioids in the medial preoptic nucleus (mPOA) and ventral tegmental area (VTA) play distinct roles in motivation and reward. In songbirds, multiple lines of recent evidence indicate that the roles of dopamine and opioid activity in mPOA and VTA in male birdsong differ depending upon whether song is used to attract females (sexually-motivated) or is produced spontaneously (undirected). Evidence is reviewed supporting the hypotheses that (1) mPOA and VTA interact to influence the context in which a male sings, (2) distinct patterns of dopamine activity underlie the motivation to produce sexually-motivated and undirected song, (3) sexually-motivated communication is externally reinforced by opioids released as part of social interactions, and (4) undirected communication is facilitated and rewarded by immediate opioid release linked to the act of singing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Reward*
  • Social Behavior
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology