Representing sex in the brain, one module at a time

Neuron. 2014 Apr 16;82(2):261-78. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.03.029.


Sexually dimorphic behaviors, qualitative or quantitative differences in behaviors between the sexes, result from the activity of a sexually differentiated nervous system. Sensory cues and sex hormones control the entire repertoire of sexually dimorphic behaviors, including those commonly thought to be charged with emotion such as courtship and aggression. Such overarching control mechanisms regulate distinct genes and neurons that in turn specify the display of these behaviors in a modular manner. How such modular control is transformed into cohesive internal states that correspond to sexually dimorphic behavior is poorly understood. We summarize current understanding of the neural circuit control of sexually dimorphic behaviors from several perspectives, including how neural circuits in general, and sexually dimorphic neurons in particular, can generate sexually dimorphic behaviors, and how molecular mechanisms and evolutionary constraints shape these behaviors. We propose that emergent themes such as the modular genetic and neural control of dimorphic behavior are broadly applicable to the neural control of other behaviors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / cytology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal