A peptidergic basis for sexual behavior in mammals
Smock T, Albeck D, Stark P
Department of Psychology,
University of Colorado,
Boulder 80309, USA.
Prog Brain Res 1998;119:467-81


Vasopressin (VP) is a peptide neurotransmitter in the limbic system of rats. It is synthesized in the medial amygdaloid nucleus in the presence of sex steroids, transported to other limbic structures such as the hippocampus and septum and secreted there by a calcium-dependent process. In the hippocampus, VP acts on cerebral microvessels and local circuit interneurons. Its excitatory action on the inhibitory interneurons produces near-total shutdown of electrical activity of the efferent fibers of pyramidal cells, the projection neurons of the hippocampus. Stimulation of the medial amygdala and release of the endogenous VP duplicates these effects and, since they are blocked by ventricular application of a VP antagonist, the effects are almost certainly mediated by endogenous VP. Recording from the VP-containing cell bodies or of the hippocampal action of the peptide indicates that the system is selectively involved with the early stages of sexual behavior, specifically those appetitive behaviors that anticipate coitus. Stimulation of the VP cells produces alterations in sexual behavior in a manner consistent with the hypothesis that the medial amygdala organizes the appetitive phase of recognition of an appropriate partner and sexual arousal. This role for the medial amygdala complements the proposed role of nearby structures in the consummatory, reward and learned aspects of sexual behavior. Association between VP, oxytocin (OT) and homologs with sexual behavior is very widespread among vertebrates, including amphibians, reptiles, primates and humans. Humans and other primates display a phenomenon called 'concealed ovulation' that may have played a role in the evolution of social structures. The review concludes with a discussion of possible experimental strategies for evaluating the possible role of VP in concealed ovulation and other conditions in which sexual behavior occurs outside of estrus.
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