Neural circuits of social behaviors: Innate yet flexible

Neuron. 2021 May 19;109(10):1600-1620. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2021.02.012. Epub 2021 Mar 10.


Social behaviors, such as mating, fighting, and parenting, are fundamental for survival of any vertebrate species. All members of a species express social behaviors in a stereotypical and species-specific way without training because of developmentally hardwired neural circuits dedicated to these behaviors. Despite being innate, social behaviors are flexible. The readiness to interact with a social target or engage in specific social acts can vary widely based on reproductive state, social experience, and many other internal and external factors. Such high flexibility gives vertebrates the ability to release the relevant behavior at the right moment and toward the right target. This maximizes reproductive success while minimizing the cost and risk associated with behavioral expression. Decades of research have revealed the basic neural circuits underlying each innate social behavior. The neural mechanisms that support behavioral plasticity have also started to emerge. Here we provide an overview of these social behaviors and their underlying neural circuits and then discuss in detail recent findings regarding the neural processes that support the flexibility of innate social behaviors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Social Behavior*