Do sex differences in the brain explain sex differences in the hormonal induction of reproductive behavior? What 25 years of research on the Japanese quail tells us

Horm Behav. 1996 Dec;30(4):627-61. doi: 10.1006/hbeh.1996.0066.


Early workers interested in the mechanisms mediating sex differences in morphology and behavior assumed that differences in behavior that are commonly observed between males and females result from the sex specificity of androgens and estrogens. Androgens were thought to facilitate male-typical traits, and estrogens were thought to facilitate female-typical traits. By the mid-20th century, however, it was apparent that administering androgens to females or estrogens to males was not always effective in sex-reversing behavior and that in some cases a "female" hormone such as an estrogen could produce male-typical behavior and an androgen could induce female-typical behavior. These conceptual difficulties were resolved to a large extent by the seminal paper of C. H. Phoenix, R. W. Goy, A. A. Gerall, and W. C. Young in (1959, Endocrinology 65, 369-382) that illustrated that several aspects of sexual behavior are different between males and females because the sexes have been exposed during their perinatal life to a different endocrine milieu that has irreversibly modified their response to steroids in adulthood. Phoenix et al. (1959) therefore formalized a clear dichotomy between the organizational and activational effects of sex steroid hormones. Since this paper, a substantial amount of research has been carried out in an attempt to identify the aspects of brain morphology or neurochemistry that differentiate under the embryonic/neonatal effects of steroids and are responsible for the different behavioral response of males and females to the activation by steroids in adulthood. During the past 25 years, research in behavioral neuroendocrinology has identified many sex differences in brain morphology or neurochemistry; however many of these sex differences disappear when male and female subjects are placed in similar endocrine conditions (e.g., are gonadectomized and treated with the same amount of steroids) so that these differences appear to be of an activational nature and cannot therefore explain sex differences in behavior that are still present in gonadectomized steroid-treated adults. This research has also revealed many aspects of brain morphology and chemistry that are markedly affected by steroids in adulthood and are thought to mediate the activation of behavior at the central level. It has been explicitly, or in some cases, implicitly assumed that the sexual differentiation of brain and behavior driven by early exposure to steroids concerns primarily those neuroanatomical/neurochemical characteristics that are altered by steroids in adulthood and presumably mediate the activation of behavior. Extensive efforts to identify these sexually differentiated brain characteristics over the past 20 years has only met with limited success, however. As regards reproductive behavior, in all model species that have been studied it is still impossible to identify satisfactorily brain characteristics that differentiate under early steroid action and explain the sex differences in behavioral activating effects of steroids. This problem is illustrated by research conducted on Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica), an avian model system that displays prominent sex differences in the sexual behavioral response to testosterone, and in which the endocrine mechanisms that control sexual differentiation of behavior have been clearly identified so that subjects with a fully sex-reversed behavioral phenotype can be easily produced. In this species, studies of sex differences in the neural substrate mediating the action of steroids in the brain, including the activity of the enzymes that metabolize steroids such as aromatase and the distribution of steroid hormone receptors as well as related neurotransmitter systems, did not result in a satisfactory explanation of sex differences in the behavioral effectiveness of testosterone. Possible explanations for the relative failure to identify the organized brain characteristics responsible for behavio

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Coturnix / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / physiology*
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*


  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones