Implications of immediate-early gene induction in the brain following sexual stimulation of female and male rodents

Brain Res Bull. 1997;44(4):397-407. doi: 10.1016/s0361-9230(97)00219-0.


Induction of immediate-early genes (IEGs), such as c-fos, has been widely used to mark the activation of brain regions following different types of sexual stimulation and behavior. A relatively common set of hormone-concentrating basal forebrain and midbrain structures in female and male rodents is activated by copulatory stimulation, in particular, stimulation of sensory nerves that innervate the penis or vagina/cervix, olfactory or pheromonal stimuli, and conditioned sexual incentives. These regions include the preoptic area, lateral septum, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, paraventricular hypothalamus, ventromedial hypothalamus, medial amygdala, ventral premammillary nuclei, ventral tegmentum, central tegmental field, mesencephalic central gray, and peripeduncular nuclei. Regions that do not contain classic intracellular steroid receptors, such as the ventral and dorsal striatum or cortex, are also activated. IEGs have also been colocalized with cytoplasmic proteins like GnRH and oxytocin, and have been used in conjunction with retrograde tracers to reveal functional pathways associated with different sexual behaviors. Steroid hormones can also alter the ability of sexual stimulation to induce IEGs. Despite the many similarities, some differences in IEG induction between sexes have also been found. We review these findings and raise the question of what IEG induction in the brain actually means for sexual behavior, that is, whether it indicates the perception of sexual stimulation, commands for motor output, or the stimulation of a future behavioral or neuroendocrine event related to the consequences of sexual stimulation. To understand the role of a particular activated region, the behavioral or neuroendocrine effects of lesions, electrical stimulation, drug or hormone infusions, must also be known.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Genes, Immediate-Early*
  • Immediate-Early Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Male
  • Organ Specificity
  • Rats
  • Rodentia
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal*
  • Transcriptional Activation


  • Immediate-Early Proteins