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Animals constantly integrate external stimuli with their own internal physiological state to make appropriate behavioural decisions. Little is known, however, about where in the brain the salience of these signals is evaluated, or which neural and transcriptional mechanisms link this integration to adaptive behaviours. We used an African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni to test the hypothesis that a new social opportunity activates the conserved 'social behaviour network' (SBN), a collection of brain nuclei known to regulate social behaviours across vertebrates. We measured mRNA levels of immediate early genes (IEGs) in microdissected brain regions as a proxy for neuronal activation, and discovered that IEGs were higher in all SBN nuclei in males that were given an opportunity to rise in social rank compared to control stable subordinate and dominant individuals. Furthermore, because the presence of sex-steroid receptors is one defining criteria of SBN nuclei, we also tested whether social opportunity or status influenced androgen and oestrogen receptor mRNA levels within these same regions. There were several rapid region-specific changes in receptor mRNA levels induced by social opportunity, most notably in oestrogen receptor subtypes in areas that regulate social aggression and reproduction, suggesting that oestrogenic signalling pathways play an important role in regulating male status. Several receptor mRNA changes occurred in regions with putative homologies to the mammalian septum and extended amygdala, two regions shared by SBN and reward circuits, suggesting an important role in the integration of social salience, stressors, hormonal state and adaptive behaviours. We also demonstrated increases in plasma sex- and stress-steroids at 30 min after a rise in social rank. This rapid endocrine and transcriptional response suggests that the SBN is involved in the integration of social inputs with internal hormonal state to facilitate the transition to dominant status, which ultimately leads to improved fitness for the previously reproductively-suppressed individual. © 2012 British Society for Neuroendocrinology.

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Journal of Neuroendocrinology

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