Integrating Neural Circuits Controlling Female Sexual Behavior

Front Syst Neurosci. 2017 Jun 8:11:42. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2017.00042. eCollection 2017.


The hypothalamus is most often associated with innate behaviors such as is hunger, thirst and sex. While the expression of these behaviors important for survival of the individual or the species is nested within the hypothalamus, the desire (i.e., motivation) for them is centered within the mesolimbic reward circuitry. In this review, we will use female sexual behavior as a model to examine the interaction of these circuits. We will examine the evidence for a hypothalamic circuit that regulates consummatory aspects of reproductive behavior, i.e., lordosis behavior, a measure of sexual receptivity that involves estradiol membrane-initiated signaling in the arcuate nucleus (ARH), activating β-endorphin projections to the medial preoptic nucleus (MPN), which in turn modulate ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (VMH) activity-the common output from the hypothalamus. Estradiol modulates not only a series of neuropeptides, transmitters and receptors but induces dendritic spines that are for estrogenic induction of lordosis behavior. Simultaneously, in the nucleus accumbens of the mesolimbic system, the mating experience produces long term changes in dopamine signaling and structure. Sexual experience sensitizes the response of nucleus accumbens neurons to dopamine signaling through the induction of a long lasting early immediate gene. While estrogen alone increases spines in the ARH, sexual experience increases dendritic spine density in the nucleus accumbens. These two circuits appear to converge onto the medial preoptic area where there is a reciprocal influence of motivational circuits on consummatory behavior and vice versa. While it has not been formally demonstrated in the human, such circuitry is generally highly conserved and thus, understanding the anatomy, neurochemistry and physiology can provide useful insight into the motivation for sexual behavior and other innate behaviors in humans.

Keywords: D1 receptors; MOR; dendritic spines; dopamine; estrogen; membrane estrogen receptor; progesterone; β-endorphin.

Publication types

  • Review