Molecular parsimony underlying behavioral plasticity
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The brain is inherently bisexual, differentiating during development so that in adulthood, males mount receptive females. Yet, vestiges of this bisexuality persist in adults, with heterotypical behaviors (females mounting and males being receptive) observed in some species. Consequently, differences in sexual behavior between the sexes, and between individuals of the same sex, are reflective of the predisposition and degree to which these behaviors are exhibited. How one behavior is facilitated and its complement simultaneously suppressed during a reproductive encounter suggests that behavioral expression is gated in some manner. Because male and female vertebrates typically display behavior characteristic of their own sex, simultaneous study of neural circuits gating homotypical and heterotypical behaviors in conventional animal models has received scant attention. The whiptail lizard species, Cnemidophorus uniparens, comprises individuals that are genetically and hormonally female, and that naturally display both types of behavior. Using High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), immunocytochemistry, in situ hybridization, intracranial surgeries, as well as pharmacological and behavioral analyses, I report that serotonin levels, and signaling via distinct serotonergic receptors at behaviorally relevant brain nuclei might allow the system to switch between either behavioral repertoire. The use of the same molecule to mediate the reciprocal inhibition of complementary behavioral repertories within the same sex is evidence of a phenomenon of molecular parsimony underlying a striking form of behavioral plasticity. This dissertation also illustrates that sexually differentiated traits such as male and female-typical sexual behaviors are sculpted by neurochemical signaling at neural substrates present in both sexes.