In many species, the reproductive centers of the brain are profoundly affected by sociosexual stimuli. This is particularly evident in female ungulates such as sheep, in which exposure to males switches them from reproductively quiescent to fertile. In two experiments with female sheep, we tested whether the brain centers that control gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neuronal activity respond differentially to “novel” vs. familiar males and whether the neuroendocrine response is associated with increased cell proliferation in the hippocampus, a site associated with memory formation. In experiment 1, groups of 10 female sheep that had previously been habituated to males for 3 mo were re-exposed to familiar males or were exposed to novel males. Only the novel males increased luteinizing hormone (LH) pulse frequency, indicating stimulation of GnRH neuronal activity. In experiment 2, groups of six female sheep were injected with bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) and then maintained in isolation from males or exposed to novel males. Two days later, the hippocampus and hypothalamus were removed and processed for fluorescence immunohistochemistry. Again, exposure to males increased LH pulse frequency. Most important, male exposure also doubled the number of BrdU-positive cells in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. No BrdU-positive cells were detected in the hypothalamus. We conclude that the stimulus from novel males switches on the reproductive centers of the brain of female sheep and rapidly doubles the rate of cell proliferation in the hippocampus. The rapidity of this response contrasts with rodents, in which several days of exposure to male pheromones seem necessary for an effect on neurogenesis.
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Vol. 80 • No. 6