Bio


Lauren O'Connell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. She studies amphibians to learn how animals adapt their behavior and physiology to changing environments. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and then started her own lab at Harvard University as a Bauer Fellow before joining the Stanford faculty in 2017. Projects in the lab include investigating parent-offspring interactions and the physiology of chemical defenses in poison frogs.

Academic Appointments


Honors & Awards


  • Frank A. Beach Award, Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (2018)
  • For Women in Science Fellowship, L'Oreal USA (2015)
  • Capranica Prize, International Society for Neuroethology (2013)
  • Young Investigator Award, International Society for Neuroethology (2012)
  • Early Career Award, Society for Social Neuroscience (2011)

Boards, Advisory Committees, Professional Organizations


  • Member, International Society for Neuroethology (2008 - Present)
  • Member, Society for the Study of Evolution (2015 - Present)

Professional Education


  • Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, Cellular and Molecular Biology (2011)
  • B.S., Cornell University, Biological Sciences (2006)
  • A.A., Tarrant County Community College, Natural Sciences (2004)

Community and International Work


  • Maternal behavior in poison frogs, Madagascar

    Topic

    Animal Behavior

    Partnering Organization(s)

    MICET

    Location

    International

    Ongoing Project

    No

    Opportunities for Student Involvement

    No

  • How poison frogs get their toxins, Ecuador

    Topic

    Ecology and Evolution

    Partnering Organization(s)

    Centro Jambatu

    Location

    International

    Ongoing Project

    Yes

    Opportunities for Student Involvement

    Yes

Current Research and Scholarly Interests


The O'Connell lab studies how genetic and environmental factors contribute to biological diversity and adaptation. We are particularly interested in understanding (1) how behavior evolves through changes in brain function and (2) how animal physiology evolves through repurposing existing cellular components.

Behavior
(1) How do neonates communicate nutritional need to parents? How do parents interpret the cries of their infants? Communication between parents and offspring is required for survival in altricial animals, like mammals (including humans), birds, and some amphibians. Yet we understand very little about the co-evolution of parent-offspring communication from a mechanistic perspective. We are studying the neural basis of parent-offspring communication in poison frogs species where tadpoles beg mothers for meals.
(2) How do poison frogs navigate their environment ? Poison frogs transport their tadpoles from the leaf litter to pools of water. In some species, mothers place tadpoles individually in small plants and then return to feed each tadpole every few days for several months. These behaviors are energetically expensive and cognitively demanding, as not only do frog parents need to remember where these pools are located, but some moms frequently return to feed their tadpoles. We are investigating the neural basis of species differences in spatial cognition as a function of sex differences in parental behavior.
(3) Does the convergent evolution of pair bonding across vertebrates rely on similar neural mechanisms? Social bonds, such as pair bonds, are critical for mental health. In order to identify generalizable and thus translatable principals, we are studying the underlying mechanisms of pair bonding across phylogenically diverse taxa, including butterflyfish, poison frogs, skinks, quail, and voles. This project re-traces the deep, ~450 million years of evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding and aims to identify fundamental neural principles that might inform the human condition.

Physiology
(1) How does variation in diet and habitat influence poison frog toxicity? Some poison frog species carry toxic chemicals to avoid predation. Poison frogs do not make their own toxins, but rather sequester toxins from the ants and mites in their diet. Thus, the frogs' ability to defend themselves is tightly linked to their environment. We are studying the trophic ecology of poison frog toxicity by linking together information about habitat, diet, and toxins across many populations and species.
(2) How do frogs sequester toxic small molecules from their diet to serve as chemical defenses? Poison frogs have developed special physiological mechanisms that allow them to uptake and store lipophilic alkaloids from their diet. To accomplish this, they need proteins for alkaloid transport throughout the body and modifications to ion channels that allow toxin resistance. We are studying the evolution of toxin sequestration from an organismal physiology perspective to characterize the toxin uptake system in poison frogs.

Projects


  • Spatial cognition in rainforest frogs, Stanford University, Centro Jambatu

    Many animals, including humans, need navigation skills for finding mates and food, or when returning home for shelter and to care for offspring. Successfully navigating the environment requires the brain to be capable of learning and remembering specific features of the environment. In mammals, males tend to have better spatial memory, and for decades, scientists have explained this as a necessity for males to navigate over larger areas in search of mates. However, this hypothesis has never been directly tested, and other researchers have recently suggested that male superiority in spatial abilities might be a side-effect of testosterone. Rainforest frogs will be used to test between these alternative hypotheses. In contrast to mammals, frogs have both the species where males roam larger rainforest areas and species where females have larger home ranges than males. Potential sex differences in navigational ability will be measured across a range of species in the field by tracking their ability to return home after displacements. Then, standardized behavioral assays will be used in the lab to detect any sex differences across various species and identify the brain regions used for spatial memory. Finally, the neuroanatomy of the amphibian hippocampus will be investigated to determine if frogs use similar or different brain mechanisms for navigation compared to mammals. Comparing these mechanisms will shed light on the evolution of spatial capabilities in animals, including ourselves. These research activities will be integrated into education by collaborating with Stanford undergraduates and Cañada Community College students to perform behavior experiments.

    Location

    Geovanni Farina, Quito, Ecuador

  • Evolution of chemical defenses in poison frogs, Stanford University

    South American poison frogs are brightly colored and highly toxic, advertising their unpalatabilily to potential predators. Poison frogs do not make these toxins themselves, but instead acquire toxins from the ants and mites they consume in their diet. Although scientists have long known that poison frogs accumulate toxins from their diet, how the frogs accumulate the toxic chemicals is unknown. The goal of this research is to understand how poison frogs accumulate toxins from the gut through the liver and to the skin for storage. Describing this process will increase our knowledge of how animals have evolved special physiological mechanisms to acquire new resources from their environment. As many of these toxins and other frog chemicals are small molecules similar to many pharmaceutical drugs, understanding how poison frogs transport these chemicals may inform more generally how this process is different from other animals (including mammals) cannot uptake these compounds. This research will provide learning experiences to all age groups in both the United States and in Ecuador, where fieldwork on poison frogs is conducted. Research will be incorporated into science K-12 classrooms through the Little Froggers School Program, which teaches children about ecology and evolution. High school biology teachers will be involved in fieldwork in Ecuador and will incorporate their research findings into their science curriculum. This research will also involve training of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students in chemistry, ecology, proteomics, and bioinformatics.

    Location

    Geovanni Farina, Quito, Ecuador

    Collaborators

    • Luis Coloma, Director, Centro Jambatu de Investigación y Conservación de Anfibios
  • Evolution of pair bonding in vertebrates, Stanford University

    Does the convergent evolution of pair bonding across vertebrates rely on similar neural mechanisms? Social bonds, such as pair bonds, are critical for mental health. In order to identify generalizable and thus translatable principals, we are studying the underlying mechanisms of pair bonding across phylogenically diverse taxa, including butterflyfish, poison frogs, skinks, quail, and voles. This project re-traces the deep, ~450 million years of evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding and aims to identify fundamental neural principles that might inform the human condition.

    Location

    Palo Alto, CA

    Collaborators

    • Nirao Shah, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (Major Laboratories and Clinical Translational Neurosciences Incubator) and of Neurobiology, Stanford University

2018-19 Courses


Stanford Advisees


Graduate and Fellowship Programs


  • Biology (School of Humanities and Sciences) (Phd Program)

All Publications


  • Conserved transcriptomic profiles underpin monogamy across vertebrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Young, R. L., Ferkin, M. H., Ockendon-Powell, N. F., Orr, V. N., Phelps, S. M., Pogany, A., Richards-Zawacki, C. L., Summers, K., Szekely, T., Trainor, B. C., Urrutia, A. O., Zachar, G., O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2019

    Abstract

    Social monogamy, typically characterized by the formation of a pair bond, increased territorial defense, and often biparental care, has independently evolved multiple times in animals. Despite the independent evolutionary origins of monogamous mating systems, several homologous brain regions and neuropeptides and their receptors have been shown to play a conserved role in regulating social affiliation and parental care, but little is known about the neuromolecular mechanisms underlying monogamy on a genomic scale. Here, we compare neural transcriptomes of reproductive males in monogamous and nonmonogamous species pairs of Peromyscus mice, Microtus voles, parid songbirds, dendrobatid frogs, and Xenotilapia species of cichlid fishes. We find that, while evolutionary divergence time between species or clades did not explain gene expression similarity, characteristics of the mating system correlated with neural gene expression patterns, and neural gene expression varied concordantly across vertebrates when species transition to monogamy. Our study provides evidence of a universal transcriptomic mechanism underlying the evolution of monogamy in vertebrates.

    View details for DOI 10.1073/pnas.1813775116

    View details for PubMedID 30617061

  • Diversity within diversity: Parasite species richness in poison frogs assessed by transcriptomics MOLECULAR PHYLOGENETICS AND EVOLUTION Santos, J. C., Tarvin, R. D., O'Connell, L. A., Blackburn, D. C., Coloma, L. A. 2018; 125: 40–50

    Abstract

    Symbionts (e.g., endoparasites and commensals) play an integral role in their host's ecology, yet in many cases their diversity is likely underestimated. Although endoparasites are traditionally characterized using morphology, sequences of conserved genes, and shotgun metagenomics, host transcriptomes constitute an underused resource to identify these organisms' diversity. By isolating non-host transcripts from host transcriptomes, individual host tissues can now simultaneously reveal their endoparasite species richness (i.e., number of different taxa) and provide insights into parasite gene expression. These approaches can be used in host taxa whose endoparasites are mostly unknown, such as those of tropical amphibians. Here, we focus on the poison frogs (Dendrobatidae) as hosts, which are a Neotropical clade known for their bright coloration and defensive alkaloids. These toxins are an effective protection against vertebrate predators (e.g., snakes and birds), bacteria, and skin-biting ectoparasites (e.g., mosquitoes); however, little is known about their deterrence against eukaryotic endoparasites. With de novo transcriptomes of dendrobatids, we developed a bioinformatics pipeline for endoparasite identification that uses host annotated RNA-seq data and set of a priori parasite taxonomic terms, which are used to mine for specific endoparasites. We found a large community of helminths and protozoans that were mostly restricted to the digestive tract and a few systemic parasites (e.g., Trypanosoma). Contrary to our expectations, all dendrobatid frogs regardless of the presence of alkaloid defenses have endoparasites, with their highest species richness located in the frog digestive tract. Some of these organisms (e.g., roundworms) might prove to be generalists, as they were not found to be co-diversifying with their frog hosts. We propose that endoparasites may escape poison frogs' chemical defenses by colonizing tissues with fewer alkaloids than the frog's skin, where most toxins are stored.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.ympev.2018.03.015

    View details for Web of Science ID 000432583900004

    View details for PubMedID 29551526

  • Circuit Architecture Underlying Distinct Components of Parental Care TRENDS IN NEUROSCIENCES Fischer, E. K., O'Connell, L. A. 2018; 41 (6): 334–36

    Abstract

    Parental care is a key evolutionary innovation that influences the fitness of parents and offspring. How the brain coordinates such a complex behavior remains poorly understood. Kohl and colleagues recently uncovered the organizational principles of hypothalamic galanin neurons and their connections in mice. Their findings revealed a striking picture in which discrete neuronal pools control distinct aspects of parental behavior.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.tins.2018.04.003

    View details for Web of Science ID 000433025300005

    View details for PubMedID 29685403

  • Variation in social systems within Chaetodon butterflyfishes, with special reference to pair bonding PLOS ONE Nowicki, J. P., O'Connell, L. A., Cowman, P. F., Walker, S. W., Coker, D. J., Pratchett, M. S. 2018; 13 (4): e0194465

    Abstract

    For many animals, affiliative relationships such as pair bonds form the foundation of society and are highly adaptive. Animal systems amenable for comparatively studying pair bonding are important for identifying underlying biological mechanisms, but mostly exist in mammals. Better establishing fish systems will enable comparison of pair bonding mechanisms across taxonomically distant lineages that may reveal general underlying mechanistic principles. We examined the utility of wild butterflyfishes (f: Chaetodontidae; g: Chaetodon) for comparatively studying pair bonding. Using stochastic character mapping, we provide the first analysis of the evolutionary history of butterflyfish sociality, revealing that pairing is ancestral, with at least seven independent transitions to gregarious grouping and solitary behavior since the late Miocene. We then formally verified social systems in six sympatric and wide-spread species representing a clade with one ancestrally reconstructed transition from paired to solitary grouping at Lizard Island, Australia. In situ observations of the size, selective affiliation and aggression, fidelity, and sex composition of social groups confirmed that Chaetodon baronessa, C. lunulatus, and C. vagabundus are predominantly pair bonding, whereas C. rainfordi, C. plebeius, and C. trifascialis are predominantly solitary. Even in the predominantly pair bonding species, C. lunulatus, a proportion of adults (15%) are solitary. Importantly, inter- and intra-specific differences in social systems do not co-vary with other previously established attributes, including parental care. Hence, the proposed butterflyfish populations are promising for inter- and intra-species comparative analyses of pair bonding and its mechanistic underpinnings. Avenues for further developing the system are proposed, including determining whether the aforementioned utility of these species applies across their geographic disruptions.

    View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0194465

    View details for Web of Science ID 000429742900031

    View details for PubMedID 29641529

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5894994

  • Seasonal changes in diet and chemical defense in the Climbing Mantella frog (Mantella laevigata). PloS one Moskowitz, N. A., Roland, A. B., Fischer, E. K., Ranaivorazo, N., Vidoudez, C., Aguilar, M. T., Caldera, S. M., Chea, J., Cristus, M. G., Crowdis, J. P., DeMessie, B., desJardins-Park, C. R., Effenberger, A. H., Flores, F., Giles, M., He, E. Y., Izmaylov, N. S., Lee, C. C., Pagel, N. A., Phu, K. K., Rosen, L. U., Seda, D. A., Shen, Y., Vargas, S., Murray, A. W., Abebe, E., Trauger, S. A., Donoso, D. A., Vences, M., O'Connell, L. A. 2018; 13 (12): e0207940

    Abstract

    Poison frogs acquire chemical defenses from the environment for protection against potential predators. These defensive chemicals are lipophilic alkaloids that are sequestered by poison frogs from dietary arthropods and stored in skin glands. Despite decades of research focusing on identifying poison frog alkaloids, we know relatively little about how environmental variation and subsequent arthropod availability impacts alkaloid loads in poison frogs. We investigated how seasonal environmental variation influences poison frog chemical profiles through changes in the diet of the Climbing Mantella (Mantella laevigata). We collected M. laevigata females on the Nosy Mangabe island reserve in Madagascar during the wet and dry seasons and tested the hypothesis that seasonal differences in rainfall is associated with changes in diet composition and skin alkaloid profiles of M. laevigata. The arthropod diet of each frog was characterized into five groups (i.e. ants, termites, mites, insect larvae, or 'other') using visual identification and cytochrome oxidase 1 DNA barcoding. We found that frog diet differed between the wet and dry seasons, where frogs had a more diverse diet in the wet season and consumed a higher percentage of ants in the dry season. To determine if seasonality was associated with variation in frog defensive chemical composition, we used gas chromatography / mass spectrometry to quantify alkaloids from individual skin samples. Although the assortment of identified alkaloids was similar across seasons, we detected significant differences in the abundance of certain alkaloids, which we hypothesize reflects seasonal variation in the diet of M. laevigata. We suggest that these variations could originate from seasonal changes in either arthropod leaf litter composition or changes in frog behavioral patterns. Although additional studies are needed to understand the consequences of long-term environmental shifts, this work suggests that alkaloid profiles are relatively robust against short-term environmental perturbations.

    View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0207940

    View details for PubMedID 30586404

  • Y Radiation of the polymorphic Little Devil poison frog (Oophaga sylvatica) in Ecuador ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION Roland, A. B., Santos, J. C., Carriker, B. C., Caty, S. N., Tapia, E. E., Coloma, L. A., O'Connell, L. A. 2017; 7 (22): 9750–62

    View details for DOI 10.1002/ece3.3503

    View details for Web of Science ID 000415900800046

  • Interacting amino acid replacements allow poison frogs to evolve epibatidine resistance SCIENCE Tarvin, R. D., Borghese, C. M., Sachs, W., Santos, J. C., Lu, Y., O'Connell, L. A., Cannatell, D. C., Harris, R., Zakon, H. H. 2017; 357 (6357): 1261–65

    Abstract

    Animals that wield toxins face self-intoxication. Poison frogs have a diverse arsenal of defensive alkaloids that target the nervous system. Among them is epibatidine, a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) agonist that is lethal at microgram doses. Epibatidine shares a highly conserved binding site with acetylcholine, making it difficult to evolve resistance yet maintain nAChR function. Electrophysiological assays of human and frog nAChR revealed that one amino acid replacement, which evolved three times in poison frogs, decreased epibatidine sensitivity but at a cost of acetylcholine sensitivity. However, receptor functionality was rescued by additional amino acid replacements that differed among poison frog lineages. Our results demonstrate how resistance to agonist toxins can evolve and that such genetic changes propel organisms toward an adaptive peak of chemical defense.

    View details for DOI 10.1126/science.aan5061

    View details for Web of Science ID 000411337700038

    View details for PubMedID 28935799

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5834227

  • Developmental morphology of granular skin glands in pre-metamorphic egg-eating poison frogs ZOOMORPHOLOGY Stynoski, J. L., O'Connell, L. A. 2017; 136 (2): 219–24
  • Modification of feeding circuits in the evolution of social behavior JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL BIOLOGY Fischer, E. K., O'Connell, L. A. 2017; 220 (1): 92–102

    Abstract

    Adaptive trade-offs between foraging and social behavior intuitively explain many aspects of individual decision-making. Given the intimate connection between social behavior and feeding/foraging at the behavioral level, we propose that social behaviors are linked to foraging on a mechanistic level, and that modifications of feeding circuits are crucial in the evolution of complex social behaviors. In this Review, we first highlight the overlap between mechanisms underlying foraging and parental care and then expand this argument to consider the manipulation of feeding-related pathways in the evolution of other complex social behaviors. We include examples from diverse taxa to highlight that the independent evolution of complex social behaviors is a variation on the theme of feeding circuit modification.

    View details for DOI 10.1242/jeb.143859

    View details for Web of Science ID 000392151400012

    View details for PubMedID 28057832

  • Ant and Mite Diversity Drives Toxin Variation in the Little Devil Poison Frog JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL ECOLOGY McGugan, J. R., Byrd, G. D., Roland, A. B., Caty, S. N., Kabir, N., Tapia, E. E., Trauger, S. A., Coloma, L. A., O'Connell, L. A. 2016; 42 (6): 537–51

    Abstract

    Poison frogs sequester chemical defenses from arthropod prey, although the details of how arthropod diversity contributes to variation in poison frog toxins remains unclear. We characterized skin alkaloid profiles in the Little Devil poison frog, Oophaga sylvatica (Dendrobatidae), across three populations in northwestern Ecuador. Using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, we identified histrionicotoxins, 3,5- and 5,8-disubstituted indolizidines, decahydroquinolines, and lehmizidines as the primary alkaloid toxins in these O. sylvatica populations. Frog skin alkaloid composition varied along a geographical gradient following population distribution in a principal component analysis. We also characterized diversity in arthropods isolated from frog stomach contents and confirmed that O. sylvatica specialize on ants and mites. To test the hypothesis that poison frog toxin variability reflects species and chemical diversity in arthropod prey, we (1) used sequencing of cytochrome oxidase 1 to identify individual prey specimens, and (2) used liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry to chemically profile consumed ants and mites. We identified 45 ants and 9 mites in frog stomachs, including several undescribed species. We also showed that chemical profiles of consumed ants and mites cluster by frog population, suggesting different frog populations have access to chemically distinct prey. Finally, by comparing chemical profiles of frog skin and isolated prey items, we traced the arthropod source of four poison frog alkaloids, including 3,5- and 5,8-disubstituted indolizidines and a lehmizidine alkaloid. Together, the data show that toxin variability in O. sylvatica reflects chemical diversity in arthropod prey.

    View details for DOI 10.1007/s10886-016-0715-x

    View details for Web of Science ID 000380063500010

    View details for PubMedID 27318689

  • Convergent Substitutions in a Sodium Channel Suggest Multiple Origins of Toxin Resistance in Poison Frogs MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND EVOLUTION Tarvin, R. D., Santos, J. C., O'Connell, L. A., Zakon, H. H., Cannatella, D. C. 2016; 33 (4): 1068–81

    Abstract

    Complex phenotypes typically have a correspondingly multifaceted genetic component. However, the genotype-phenotype association between chemical defense and resistance is often simple: genetic changes in the binding site of a toxin alter how it affects its target. Some toxic organisms, such as poison frogs (Anura: Dendrobatidae), have defensive alkaloids that disrupt the function of ion channels, proteins that are crucial for nerve and muscle activity. Using protein-docking models, we predict that three major classes of poison frog alkaloids (histrionicotoxins, pumiliotoxins, and batrachotoxins) bind to similar sites in the highly conserved inner pore of the muscle voltage-gated sodium channel, Nav1.4. We predict that poison frogs are somewhat resistant to these compounds because they have six types of amino acid replacements in the Nav1.4 inner pore that are absent in all other frogs except for a distantly related alkaloid-defended frog from Madagascar, Mantella aurantiaca. Protein-docking models and comparative phylogenetics support the role of these replacements in alkaloid resistance. Taking into account the four independent origins of chemical defense in Dendrobatidae, phylogenetic patterns of the amino acid replacements suggest that 1) alkaloid resistance in Nav1.4 evolved independently at least seven times in these frogs, 2) variation in resistance-conferring replacements is likely a result of differences in alkaloid exposure across species, and 3) functional constraint shapes the evolution of the Nav1.4 inner pore. Our study is the first to demonstrate the genetic basis of autoresistance in frogs with alkaloid defenses.

    View details for DOI 10.1093/molbev/msv350

    View details for Web of Science ID 000374226700018

    View details for PubMedID 26782998

  • Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri: a new ant species discovered in the stomach of the dendrobatid poison frog, Oophaga sylvatica (Funkhouser) ZOOKEYS Rabeling, C., Sosa-Calvo, J., O'Connell, L. A., Coloma, L. A., Fernandez, F. 2016: 79–95

    Abstract

    The ant genus Lenomyrmex was recently discovered and described from mid to high elevation rainforests in southern Central and northwestern South America. Lenomyrmex currently consists of six described species, which are only rarely collected. Here, we add a new species, Lenomyrmex hoelldoblerisp. n., which was discovered in a stomach content sample of the dendrobatid frog, Oophaga sylvatica, from northwestern Ecuador. Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri can be distinguished from other species in the genus by the presence of a well-developed petiolar node, whereas in all other species the node of the petiole is ill-defined. In addition to the shape of the petiolar node, Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri can be distinguished from the morphologically similar Lenomyrmex costatus by (i) the presence of the metanotal suture, (ii) the direction of the striae on dorsum of propodeum (concentrically transverse in Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri, longitudinal in Lenomyrmex costatus), (iii) the finely striate dorsum of postpetiole, (iv) its larger size, and (v) distinctly darker coloration. We also describe the gyne of Lenomyrmex foveolatus. This collection record from northwestern Ecuador extends the geographic distribution of Lenomyrmex foveolatus 400 km south from its previous record in Colombia. A revised taxonomic key to the workers and gynes of all described Lenomyrmex species is provided. We discuss the taxonomic relationship of Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri to other species in the genus and its biology based on the limited information that is currently available. Finally, we briefly discuss the feeding ecology of dendrobatid poison frogs in the context of providing a valuable source of rarely collected and cryptic new ant species.

    View details for DOI 10.3897/zookeys.618.9692

    View details for Web of Science ID 000383377300005

    View details for PubMedID 27853401

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5102051

  • Poison frogs as a model system for studying the neurobiology of parental care CURRENT OPINION IN BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES Roland, A. B., O'Connell, L. A. 2015; 6: 76–81
  • Social odors conveying dominance and reproductive information induce rapid physiological and neuromolecular changes in a cichlid fish BMC GENOMICS Simoes, J. M., Barata, E. N., Harris, R. M., O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A., Oliveira, R. F. 2015; 16: 114

    Abstract

    Social plasticity is a pervasive feature of animal behavior. Animals adjust the expression of their social behavior to the daily changes in social life and to transitions between life-history stages, and this ability has an impact in their Darwinian fitness. This behavioral plasticity may be achieved either by rewiring or by biochemically switching nodes of the neural network underlying social behavior in response to perceived social information. Independent of the proximate mechanisms, at the neuromolecular level social plasticity relies on the regulation of gene expression, such that different neurogenomic states emerge in response to different social stimuli and the switches between states are orchestrated by signaling pathways that interface the social environment and the genotype. Here, we test this hypothesis by characterizing the changes in the brain profile of gene expression in response to social odors in the Mozambique Tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus. This species has a rich repertoire of social behaviors during which both visual and chemical information are conveyed to conspecifics. Specifically, dominant males increase their urination frequency during agonist encounters and during courtship to convey chemical information reflecting their dominance status.We recorded electro-olfactograms to test the extent to which the olfactory epithelium can discriminate between olfactory information from dominant and subordinate males as well as from pre- and post-spawning females. We then performed a genome-scale gene expression analysis of the olfactory bulb and the olfactory cortex homolog in order to identify the neuromolecular systems involved in processing these social stimuli.Our results show that different olfactory stimuli from conspecifics' have a major impact in the brain transcriptome, with different chemical social cues eliciting specific patterns of gene expression in the brain. These results confirm the role of rapid changes in gene expression in the brain as a genomic mechanism underlying behavioral plasticity and reinforce the idea of an extensive transcriptional plasticity of cichlid genomes, especially in response to rapid changes in their social environment.

    View details for DOI 10.1186/s12864-015-1255-4

    View details for Web of Science ID 000350166600002

    View details for PubMedID 25766511

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4344806

  • Neural control of maternal and paternal behaviors SCIENCE Dulac, C., O'Connell, L. A., Wu, Z. 2014; 345 (6198): 765–70

    Abstract

    Parental care, including feeding and protection of young, is essential for the survival as well as mental and physical well-being of the offspring. A large variety of parental behaviors has been described across species and sexes, raising fascinating questions about how animals identify the young and how brain circuits drive and modulate parental displays in males and females. Recent studies have begun to uncover a striking antagonistic interplay between brain systems underlying parental care and infant-directed aggression in both males and females, as well as a large range of intrinsic and environmentally driven neural modulation and plasticity. Improved understanding of the neural control of parental interactions in animals should provide novel insights into the complex issue of human parental care in both health and disease.

    View details for DOI 10.1126/science.1253291

    View details for Web of Science ID 000340593100034

    View details for PubMedID 25124430

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4230532

  • Evolutionary Development of Neural Systems in Vertebrates and Beyond JOURNAL OF NEUROGENETICS O'Connell, L. A. 2013; 27 (3): 69–85

    Abstract

    The emerging field of "neuro-evo-devo" is beginning to reveal how the molecular and neural substrates that underlie brain function are based on variations in evolutionarily ancient and conserved neurochemical and neural circuit themes. Comparative work across bilaterians is reviewed to highlight how early neural patterning specifies modularity of the embryonic brain, which lays a foundation on which manipulation of neurogenesis creates adjustments in brain size. Small variation within these developmental mechanisms contributes to the evolution of brain diversity. Comparing the specification and spatial distribution of neural phenotypes across bilaterians has also suggested some major brain evolution trends, although much more work on profiling neural connections with neurochemical specificity across a wide diversity of organisms is needed. These comparative approaches investigating the evolution of brain form and function hold great promise for facilitating a mechanistic understanding of how variation in brain morphology, neural phenotypes, and neural networks influences brain function and behavioral diversity across organisms.

    View details for DOI 10.3109/01677063.2013.789511

    View details for Web of Science ID 000324257300002

    View details for PubMedID 23745795

  • Prostaglandin F2 alpha facilitates female mating behavior based on male performance BEHAVIORAL ECOLOGY AND SOCIOBIOLOGY Kidd, M. R., Dijkstra, P. D., Alcott, C., Lavee, D., Ma, J., O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2013; 67 (8): 1307–15
  • Sex differences and similarities in the neuroendocrine regulation of social behavior in an African cichlid fish HORMONES AND BEHAVIOR O'Connell, L. A., Ding, J. H., Hofmann, H. A. 2013; 64 (3): 468–76

    Abstract

    An individual's position in a social hierarchy profoundly affects behavior and physiology through interactions with community members, yet little is known about how the brain contributes to status differences between and within the social states or sexes. We aimed to determine sex-specific attributes of social status by comparing circulating sex steroid hormones and neural gene expression of sex steroid receptors in dominant and subordinate male and female Astatotilapia burtoni, a highly social African cichlid fish. We found that testosterone and 17β-estradiol levels are higher in males regardless of status and dominant individuals regardless of sex. Progesterone was found to be higher in dominant individuals regardless of sex. Based on pharmacological manipulations in males and females, progesterone appears to be a common mechanism for promoting courtship in dominant individuals. We also examined expression of androgen receptors, estrogen receptor α, and the progesterone receptor in five brain regions that are important for social behavior. Most of the differences in brain sex steroid receptor expression were due to sex rather than status. Our results suggest that the parvocellular preoptic area is a core region for mediating sex differences through androgen and estrogen receptor expression, whereas the progesterone receptor may mediate sex and status behaviors in the putative homologs of the nucleus accumbens and ventromedial hypothalamus. Overall our results suggest sex differences and similarities in the regulation of social dominance by gonadal hormones and their receptors in the brain.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2013.07.003

    View details for Web of Science ID 000325735800007

    View details for PubMedID 23899762

  • Neuroendocrine Mechanisms Underlying Sensory Integration of Social Signals JOURNAL OF NEUROENDOCRINOLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Rigney, M. M., Dykstra, D. W., Hofmann, H. A. 2013; 25 (7): 644–54

    Abstract

    Individuals integrate information about their environment into adaptive behavioural responses, yet how different sensory modalities contribute to these decisions and where in the brain this integration occurs is not well understood. We presented male cichlid fish (Astatotilapia burtoni) with sensory information in three social contexts: intruder challenge, reproductive opportunity and a socially neutral situation. We then measured behavioural and hormonal responses along with induction of the immediate early gene c-Fos in candidate forebrain regions. In the intruder challenge context, males were exposed to either a visual stimulus of a dominant male, the putative male pheromone androstenedione, or both. We found that, compared to the neutral context, a visual stimulus was necessary and sufficient for an aggressive response, whereas both chemical and visual stimuli were needed for an androgen response. In the reproductive opportunity context, males were exposed to either a visual stimulus of a receptive female, a progesterone metabolite (female pheromone) only, or both. We further found that the visual stimulus is necessary and sufficient for an androgen response in the reproductive opportunity context. In the brain, we observed c-Fos induction in response to a visual challenge stimulus specifically in dopaminergic neurones of area Vc (the central region of the ventral telencephalon), a putative striatal homologue, whereas presentation of a chemical stimulus did not induce c-Fos induction in the intruder challenge context. Our results suggest that different sensory cues are processed in a social context-specific manner as part of adaptive decision-making processes.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/jne.12045

    View details for Web of Science ID 000320402900006

    View details for PubMedID 23631684

  • Aromatase regulates aggression in the African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni. Physiology & behavior Huffman, L. S., O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2013; 112-113: 77-83

    Abstract

    The roles of estrogen and androgens in male social behavior are well studied, but little is known about how these hormones contribute to behavior in a social hierarchy. Here we test the role of aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone into estradiol, in mediating aggression and reproductive behavior in male Astatotilapia burtoni, an African cichlid fish that displays remarkable plasticity in social behavior. We first measured aromatase expression in subordinate and dominant males in brain regions that regulate social behavior and found that subordinate males have higher aromatase expression than dominant males in the magnocellular and gigantocellular regions of the preoptic area. Next, we functionally tested the role of aromatase in regulating behavior by intraperitoneally injecting dominant males with either saline or fadrozole (FAD), an aromatase inhibitor, and found that FAD treatment decreases aggressive, but not reproductive, behaviors compared to saline controls. To determine the underlying physiological and molecular consequences of FAD treatment, we measured estradiol and testosterone levels from plasma and brain aromatase expression in FAD and saline treated dominant males. We found that estradiol levels decreased and testosterone levels increased in response to FAD treatment. Moreover, FAD treated males had increased aromatase expression in the gigantocellular portion of the POA, possibly a compensatory response. Overall, our results suggest aromatase is a key enzyme that promotes aggression in A. burtoni males through actions in the preoptic area.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.physbeh.2013.02.004

    View details for PubMedID 23438371

  • Female preference for males depends on reproductive physiology in the African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni GENERAL AND COMPARATIVE ENDOCRINOLOGY Kidd, M. R., O'Connell, L. A., Kidd, C. E., Chen, C. W., Fontenot, M. R., Williams, S. J., Hofmann, H. A. 2013; 180: 56–63

    Abstract

    Mate choice is fundamental to sexual selection, yet little is known about underlying physiological mechanisms that influence female mating decisions. We investigated the endocrine underpinnings of female mate choice in the African cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni, a non-seasonal breeder. In addition to profiling behavioral and hormonal changes across the female reproductive cycle, we tested two hypotheses regarding possible factors influencing female mate choice. We first asked whether female mate choice is influenced by male visual and/or chemical cues. A. burtoni females were housed for one full reproductive cycle in the center of a dichotomous choice apparatus with a large (attractive) or small (unattractive) conspecific male on either side. Females associated mostly with small, less attractive males, but on the day of spawning reversed their preference to large, attractive males, with whom they mated almost exclusively, although this choice depended on the relative amount of androgens released into the water by small males. We next asked whether male behavior or androgen levels change in relation to the stimulus females' reproductive state. We found that stimulus male aggression decreased and reproductive displays increased as the day of spawning approached. Moreover male testosterone levels changed throughout the females' reproductive cycle, with larger males releasing more testosterone into the water than small males. Our data suggest that female association in a dichotomous choice assay is only indicative of the actual mate choice on the day of spawning. Furthermore, we show that male behavior and hormone levels are dependent on the reproductive state of conspecific females.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.ygcen.2012.10.014

    View details for Web of Science ID 000313535400008

    View details for PubMedID 23168085

  • Neurochemical profiling of dopaminergic neurons in the forebrain of a cichlid fish, Astatotilapia burtoni JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL NEUROANATOMY O'Connell, L. A., Fontenot, M. R., Hofmann, H. A. 2013; 47: 106–15

    Abstract

    Across vertebrates, the mesolimbic reward system is a highly conserved neural network that serves to evaluate the salience of environmental stimuli, with dopamine as the neurotransmitter most relevant to its function. Although brain regions in the dopaminergic reward system have been well characterized in mammals, homologizing these brain areas with structures in teleosts has been controversial, especially for the mesencephalo-diencephalic dopaminergic cell populations. Here we examine the neurochemical profile of five dopaminergic cell groups (Vc, POA, PPr, TPp, pTn) in the model cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni to better understand putative homology relationships between teleosts and mammals. We characterized in the adult brain the expression patterns of three genes (etv5, nr4a2, and pitx3) that either specify dopaminergic cell fate or maintain dopaminergic cell populations. We then determined whether these genes are expressed in dopaminergic cells. We find many striking similarities in these gene expression profiles between dopaminergic cell populations in teleosts and their putative mammalian homologs. Our results suggest that many of these dopaminergic cell groups are indeed evolutionarily ancient and conserved across vertebrates.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jchemneu.2012.12.007

    View details for Web of Science ID 000315549900012

    View details for PubMedID 23295359

  • Androgens coordinate neurotransmitter-related gene expression in male whiptail lizards GENES BRAIN AND BEHAVIOR O'Connell, L. A., Mitchell, M. M., Hofmann, H. A., Crews, D. 2012; 11 (7): 813–18

    Abstract

    Sex steroid hormones coordinate neurotransmitter systems in the male brain to facilitate sexual behavior. Although neurotransmitter release in the male brain has been well documented, little is known about how androgens orchestrate changes in gene expression of neurotransmitter receptors. We used male whiptail lizards (Cnemidophorus inornatus) to investigate how androgens alter neurotransmitter-related gene expression in brain regions involved in social decision making. We focused on three neurotransmitter systems involved in male-typical sexual behavior, including the N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor, nitric oxide and dopamine receptors. Here, we show that in androgen-treated males, there are coordinated changes in neurotransmitter-related gene expression. In androgen-implanted castrates compared with blank-implanted castrates (control group), we found associated increases in neuronal nitric oxide synthase gene expression in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), preoptic area and ventromedial hypothalamus, a decrease of NR1 gene expression (obligate subunit of NMDA receptors) in the medial amygdaloid area and NAcc and a decrease in D1 and D2 dopamine receptor gene expression in the NAcc. Our results support and expand the current model of androgen-mediated gene expression changes of neurotransmitter-related systems that facilitate sexual behavior in males. This also suggests that the proposed evolutionarily ancient reward system that reinforces sexual behavior in amniote vertebrates extends to reptiles.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/j.1601-183X.2012.00828.x

    View details for Web of Science ID 000309753600007

    View details for PubMedID 22862958

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC3467320

  • Distribution of nonapeptide systems in the forebrain of an African cichlid fish, Astatotilapia burtoni JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL NEUROANATOMY Huffman, L. S., O'Connell, L. A., Kenkel, C. D., Kline, R. J., Khan, I. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2012; 44 (2): 86-97

    Abstract

    Nonapeptides and their receptors have important functions in mediating social behavior across vertebrates. Where these nonapeptides are synthesized in the brain has been studied extensively in most vertebrate lineages, yet we know relatively little about the neural distribution of nonapeptide receptors outside of mammals. As nonapeptides play influential roles in behavioral regulation in all vertebrates, including teleost fish, we mapped the distributions of the receptors for arginine vasotocin (AVT; homolog of arginine vasopressin) and isotocin (IST; homolog of oxytocin/mesotocin) throughout the forebrain of Astatotilapia burtoni, an African cichlid fish with behavioral phenotypes that are plastic and reversible based on the immediate social environment. We characterized the distribution of the AVT V1a2 receptor (V1aR) and the IST receptor (ITR) using both immunohistochemistry for protein detection and in situ hybridization for mRNA detection, as well as AVT and IST using immunohistochemistry. Expression of the neuropeptide receptors was widely distributed throughout the fore- and midbrain, including the proposed teleost homologs of the mammalian amygdala complex, striatum, hypothalamus, and ventral tegmental area. We conclude that although the location of nonapeptide synthesis is restricted compared to tetrapod vertebrates, the distribution of nonapeptide receptors is highly conserved across taxa. Our results significantly extend our knowledge of where nonapeptides act in the brains of teleosts to mediate social transitions and behavior.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jchemneu.2012.05.002

    View details for Web of Science ID 000307151800004

    View details for PubMedID 22668656

  • Evolution of a Vertebrate Social Decision-Making Network SCIENCE O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2012; 336 (6085): 1154–57

    Abstract

    Animals evaluate and respond to their social environment with adaptive decisions. Revealing the neural mechanisms of such decisions is a major goal in biology. We analyzed expression profiles for 10 neurochemical genes across 12 brain regions important for decision-making in 88 species representing five vertebrate lineages. We found that behaviorally relevant brain regions are remarkably conserved over 450 million years of evolution. We also find evidence that different brain regions have experienced different selection pressures, because spatial distribution of neuroendocrine ligands are more flexible than their receptors across vertebrates. Our analysis suggests that the diversity of social behavior in vertebrates can be explained, in part, by variations on a theme of conserved neural and gene expression networks.

    View details for DOI 10.1126/science.1218889

    View details for Web of Science ID 000304647900048

    View details for PubMedID 22654056

  • Isotocin regulates paternal care in a monogamous cichlid fish HORMONES AND BEHAVIOR O'Connell, L. A., Matthews, B. J., Hofmann, H. A. 2012; 61 (5): 725–33

    Abstract

    While the survival value of paternal care is well understood, little is known about its physiological basis. Here we investigate the neuroendocrine contributions to paternal care in the monogamous cichlid, Amatitlania nigrofasciata. We first explored the dynamic range of paternal care in three experimental groups: biparental males (control fathers housed with their mate), single fathers (mate removed), or lone males (mate and offspring removed). We found that control males gradually increase paternal care over time, whereas single fathers increased care immediately after mate removal. Males with offspring present had lower levels of circulating 11-ketotestosterone (11-KT) yet still maintained aggressive displays toward brood predators. To determine what brain regions may contribute to paternal care, we quantified induction of the immediate early gene c-Fos, and found that single fathers have more c-Fos induction in the forebrain area Vv (putative lateral septum homologue), but not in the central pallium (area Dc). While overall preoptic area c-Fos induction was similar between groups, we found that parvocellular preoptic isotocin (IST) neurons in single fathers showed increased c-Fos induction, suggesting IST may facilitate the increase of paternal care after mate removal. To functionally test the role of IST in regulating paternal care, we treated biparental males with an IST receptor antagonist, which blocked paternal care. Our results indicate that isotocin plays a significant role in promoting paternal care, and more broadly suggest that the convergent evolution of paternal care across vertebrates may have recruited similar neuroendocrine mechanisms.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.03.009

    View details for Web of Science ID 000304339800009

    View details for PubMedID 22498693

  • Rising StARs: Behavioral, hormonal, and molecular responses to social challenge and opportunity HORMONES AND BEHAVIOR Huffman, L. S., Mitchell, M. M., O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2012; 61 (4): 631-641

    Abstract

    Across taxa, individuals must respond to a dynamic social environment of challenges and opportunities on multiple biological levels, including behavior, hormone profiles, and gene expression. We investigated the response to a complex social environment including both territorial challenges and reproductive opportunities in the African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni (Burton's mouthbrooder), a species well-known for its phenotypic plasticity. Male A. burtoni are either socially dominant or subordinate and can transition between the two phenotypes. We used this transition to simultaneously study changes in aggression, reproductive behavior, testosterone and estradiol levels, gonadal histology, and testes expression of three genes involved in testosterone synthesis. We have found that males immediately become aggressive and increase testosterone levels when they become dominant in this paradigm of challenge and opportunity. Reproductive behavior and estradiol increase slightly later but are also up-regulated within 24h. Increases in steroid hormone levels are accompanied by an increase in expression of steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR), the rate-limiting enzyme during testosterone synthesis, as well as an increase in testis maturation as measured by histological organization. Reproductive behavior was found to correlate with female gravidity, suggesting that males were able to perceive reproductive opportunity. Our study demonstrates the rapid plasticity at multiple levels of biological organization that animals can display in response to changes in their complex social environment.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.02.016

    View details for Web of Science ID 000302763700023

    View details for PubMedID 22373495

  • Social Status Predicts How Sex Steroid Receptors Regulate Complex Behavior across Levels of Biological Organization ENDOCRINOLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2012; 153 (3): 1341–51

    Abstract

    Social status strongly affects behavior and physiology, in part mediated by gonadal hormones, although how each sex steroid acts across levels of biological organization is not well understood. We examine the role of sex steroids in modulating social behavior in dominant (DOM) and subordinate (SUB) males of a highly social fish, Astatotilapia burtoni. We first used agonists and antagonists to each sex steroid receptor and found that androgens and progestins modulate courtship behavior only in DOM, whereas estrogens modulate aggressive behavior independent of social status. We then examined the hormonal and physiological responses to sex steroid receptor antagonist treatment and uncovered substantial changes in circulating steroid hormone levels and gonad size only in SUB, not in DOM. Consistent with status-based physiological sensitivities to drug manipulation, we found that neuropeptide and steroid receptor gene expression in the preoptic area was sensitive only in SUB. However, when we compared the transcriptomes of males that received either vehicle or an estrogen receptor antagonist, 8.25% of all genes examined changed expression in DOM in comparison with only 0.56% in SUB. Finally, we integrate behavior, physiology, and brain gene expression to infer functional modules that underlie steroid receptor regulation of behavior. Our work suggests that environmentally induced changes at one level of biological organization do not simply affect changes of similar magnitude at other levels, but that instead very few key pathways likely serve as conduits for executing plastic responses across multiple levels.

    View details for DOI 10.1210/en.2011-1663

    View details for Web of Science ID 000300645600038

    View details for PubMedID 22166981

  • The Vertebrate mesolimbic reward system and social behavior network: A comparative synthesis JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE NEUROLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2011; 519 (18): 3599–3639

    Abstract

    All animals evaluate the salience of external stimuli and integrate them with internal physiological information into adaptive behavior. Natural and sexual selection impinge on these processes, yet our understanding of behavioral decision-making mechanisms and their evolution is still very limited. Insights from mammals indicate that two neural circuits are of crucial importance in this context: the social behavior network and the mesolimbic reward system. Here we review evidence from neurochemical, tract-tracing, developmental, and functional lesion/stimulation studies that delineates homology relationships for most of the nodes of these two circuits across the five major vertebrate lineages: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and teleost fish. We provide for the first time a comprehensive comparative analysis of the two neural circuits and conclude that they were already present in early vertebrates. We also propose that these circuits form a larger social decision-making (SDM) network that regulates adaptive behavior. Our synthesis thus provides an important foundation for understanding the evolution of the neural mechanisms underlying reward processing and behavioral regulation.

    View details for DOI 10.1002/cne.22735

    View details for Web of Science ID 000297010700001

    View details for PubMedID 21800319

  • The distribution of an AVT V1a receptor in the brain of a sex changing fish, Epinephelus adscensionis JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL NEUROANATOMY Kline, R. J., O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A., Holt, G., Khan, I. A. 2011; 42 (1): 72–88

    Abstract

    The present study describes the distribution of an arginine vasotocin (AVT) V1a receptor (AVTr) throughout the brain of a sex-changing grouper, rock hind Epinephelus adscensionis. The objectives of this study were to describe the AVTr distribution in the brain of rock hind for potential linkages of the AVT hormone system with sex-specific behaviors observed in this species and to examine sex-specific differences that might exist. An antibody was designed for rock hind AVTr against the deduced amino acid sequence for the third intracellular loop. Protein expression, identified with immunohistochemistry showed high concordance with mRNA expression, identified with in situ hybridization. AVTr protein and mRNA expression was widely distributed throughout the brain, indicating that AVT may act as a neuromodulator via this V1a receptor subtype. AVTr protein and mRNA were present in regions associated with behavior, reproduction and spatial learning, as well as sensory functions such as vision, olfaction and lateral line sensory processing. We observed high AVTr expression in granular cell formations in the internal cellular layer of olfactory bulbs, torus longitudinalis, granular layer of the corpus cerebellum, valvula of the cerebellum, nuclei of the lateral and posterior recesses, and granular eminence. High protein and mRNA expression was also observed in the preoptic area, anterior hypothalamus, and habenular nucleus. No obvious sex differences were noted in any region of the rock hind brain.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jchemneu.2011.06.005

    View details for Web of Science ID 000295149200008

    View details for PubMedID 21723386

  • Genes, hormones, and circuits: An integrative approach to study the evolution of social behavior FRONTIERS IN NEUROENDOCRINOLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Hofmann, H. A. 2011; 32 (3): 320–35

    Abstract

    Tremendous progress has been made in our understanding of the ultimate and proximate mechanisms underlying social behavior, yet an integrative evolutionary analysis of its underpinnings has been difficult. In this review, we propose that modern genomic approaches can facilitate such studies by integrating four approaches to brain and behavior studies: (1) animals face many challenges and opportunities that are ecologically and socially equivalent across species; (2) they respond with species-specific, yet quantifiable and comparable approach and avoidance behaviors; (3) these behaviors in turn are regulated by gene modules and neurochemical codes; and (4) these behaviors are governed by brain circuits such as the mesolimbic reward system and the social behavior network. For each approach, we discuss genomic and other studies that have shed light on various aspects of social behavior and its underpinnings and suggest promising avenues for future research into the evolution of neuroethological systems.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.yfrne.2010.12.004

    View details for Web of Science ID 000293726400004

    View details for PubMedID 21163292

  • Neural distribution of the nuclear progesterone receptor in the tungara frog, Physalaemus pustulosus JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL NEUROANATOMY O'Connell, L. A., Ding, J. H., Ryan, M. J., Hofmann, H. A. 2011; 41 (3): 137–47

    Abstract

    The gonadal steroid hormone progesterone plays an important role across all vertebrates in mediating female reproductive physiology and behavior. Many effects of progesterone are mediated by a nuclear progesterone receptor (PR), which is crucial for integration of external signals and internal physiological cues in the brain to produce an appropriate behavioral output. The túngara frog, Physalaemus pustulosus, is an excellent model system for the study of mechanisms by which sensory signals, such as auditory communication, are processed within neural circuits where mate choice decisions are made. To establish a framework for studying the neural basis of mate choice and social behavior in this species, we first describe the cytoarchitecture of the brain using Nissl-stained sections. Then, in order to better understand where progesterone acts to regulate social decisions, we determined the distribution of PR protein throughout the brain of P. pustulosus by immunohistochemistry. We found PR immunoreactivity in key brain regions known to modulate the processing of auditory cues and social behavior in other vertebrates. Due to its widespread distribution, PR likely also plays important roles in non-limbic brain regions that mediate non-social information processing. Further, we have colocalized PR with tyrosine hydroxylase, providing a functional context for the role of progesterone in mediating motivation and motor behavior. Our results significantly extend our understanding of hormonal modulation in the anuran brain and support the important role of the nuclear progesterone receptor in modulating female mate choice and receptivity in amphibians and across vertebrates.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jchemneu.2011.01.002

    View details for Web of Science ID 000289700900002

    View details for PubMedID 21256209

  • Molecular characterization and brain distribution of the progesterone receptor in whiptail lizards GENERAL AND COMPARATIVE ENDOCRINOLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Matthews, B. J., Patel, S. B., O'Connell, J. D., Crews, D. 2011; 171 (1): 64–74

    Abstract

    Progesterone and its nuclear receptor are critical in modulating reproductive physiology and behavior in female and male vertebrates. Whiptail lizards (genus Cnemidophorus) are an excellent model system in which to study the evolution of sexual behavior, as both the ancestral and descendent species exist. Male-typical sexual behavior is mediated by progesterone in both the ancestral species and the descendant all-female species, although the molecular characterization and distribution of the progesterone receptor protein throughout the reptilian brain is not well understood. To better understand the gene targets and ligand binding properties of the progesterone receptor in whiptails, we cloned the promoter and coding sequence of the progesterone receptor and analyzed the predicted protein structure. We next determined the distribution of the progesterone receptor protein and mRNA throughout the brain of Cnemidophorus inornatus and Cnemidophorus uniparens by immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization. We found the progesterone receptor to be present in many brain regions known to regulate social behavior and processing of stimulus salience across many vertebrates, including the ventral tegmental area, amygdala, nucleus accumbens and several hypothalamic nuclei. Additionally, we quantified immunoreactive cells in the preoptic area and ventromedial hypothalamus in females of both species and males of the ancestral species. We found differences between both species and across ovarian states. Our results significantly extend our understanding of progesterone modulation in the reptilian brain and support the important role of the nuclear progesterone receptor in modulating sexual behavior in reptiles and across vertebrates.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.ygcen.2010.12.010

    View details for Web of Science ID 000287769800008

    View details for PubMedID 21185292

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC3041865

  • Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase as a Substrate for the Evolution of Pseudosexual Behaviour in a Parthenogenetic Whiptail Lizard JOURNAL OF NEUROENDOCRINOLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Matthews, B. J., Crews, D. 2011; 23 (3): 244–53

    Abstract

    The evolution of neuroendocrine mechanisms governing sex-typical behaviour is poorly understood. An outstanding animal model is the whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus) because both the ancestral and descendent species still exist. The ancestral little striped whiptail, Cnemidophorus inornatus, consists of males and females, which exhibit sex-specific mating behaviours. The descendent desert grassland whiptail, Cnemidophorus uniparens, consists only of females that alternately exhibit both female-like and male-like pseudosexual behaviour. Castrated male C. inornatus will mount a conspecific in response to exogenous androgen, although some are also sensitive to progesterone. This polymorphism in progesterone sensitivity in the ancestral species may have been involved in evolution of progesterone-mediated male-typical behaviour in the descendant unisexual lizards. We tested whether progesterone activates a typically androgenic signalling pathway by investigating hormonal regulation of neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) using in situ hybridisation and NADPH diaphorase histochemistry, a stain for nNOS protein. NADPH diaphorase is widely distributed throughout the brain of both species, although only in the periventricular nucleus of the preoptic area (pvPOA) are there differences between mounting and non-mounting individuals. The number of cells expressing nNOS mRNA and NADPH diaphorase is higher in the pvPOA of individuals that mount in response to progesterone or androgen. Furthermore, the nNOS promoter has both androgen and progesterone response elements, and NADPH diaphorase colocalises with the progesterone receptor in the pvPOA. These data suggest that a polymorphism in progesterone sensitivity in the sexual ancestor reflects a differential regulation of nNOS and may account for the male-typical behaviour in unisexual whiptail lizards.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2010.02099.x

    View details for Web of Science ID 000288105000006

    View details for PubMedID 21126273

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4509676

  • Characterization of the Dopaminergic System in the Brain of an African Cichlid Fish, Astatotilapia burtoni JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE NEUROLOGY O'Connell, L. A., Fontenot, M. R., Hofmann, H. A. 2011; 519 (1): 75–92

    Abstract

    Catecholamines, such as dopamine, are evolutionarily ancient neurotransmitters that play an essential role in mediating behavior. In vertebrates, dopamine is central to the nigrostriatal motor and mesolimbic reward systems. Despite its importance, the distribution of the dopaminergic system has not been well studied in the teleost brain. The African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni has become an important model system in social neuroscience and lends itself to uncovering how social decisions are implemented in the brain. To understand better where dopamine acts to regulate social behavior in this species, we have determined the distribution of putative dopaminergic cells and fibers (by tyrosine hydroxylase immunohistochemistry) and dopamine receptors (by in situ hybridization for the D(1A) and D(2) dopamine receptor subtypes) throughout the forebrain and part of the mesencephalon of A. burtoni. Tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity was evident in several regions of the fore- and midbrain, in support of putative homologies to tetrapods. Additionally, the D(1A) and D(2) receptors were identified in brain regions known to modulate social behavior in other vertebrates, including the proposed teleost homologues of the mammalian amygdalar complex, hippocampus, striatum, preoptic area, anterior hypothalamus, ventromedial hypothalamus, and ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra pars compacta. Tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive fibers as well as D(1A) and D(2) receptor expression overlap almost completely in their distribution. These results significantly extend our understanding of the distribution of the dopaminergic system in the teleost brain and suggest a conserved role of dopamine in modulating behavior across vertebrates.

    View details for DOI 10.1002/cne.22506

    View details for Web of Science ID 000285310100007

    View details for PubMedID 21120929

  • Characterization of the Dopamine System in the Brain of the Tungara Frog, Physalaemus pustulosus BRAIN BEHAVIOR AND EVOLUTION O'Connell, L. A., Matthews, B. J., Ryan, M. J., Hofmann, H. A. 2010; 76 (3-4): 211–25

    Abstract

    Dopamine is an evolutionarily ancient neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in mediating behavior. In vertebrates, dopamine is central to the mesolimbic reward system, a neural network concerned with the valuation of stimulus salience, and to the nigrostriatal motor system and hypothalamic nuclei involved in the regulation of locomotion and social behavior. In amphibians, dopaminergic neurons have been mapped out in several species, yet the distribution of dopaminoreceptive cells is unknown. The túngara frog, Physalaemus pustulosus, is an excellent model system for the study of neural mechanisms by which valuations of stimuli salience and social decisions are made, especially in the context of mate choice. In order to better understand where dopamine acts to regulate social decisions in this species, we have determined the distribution of putative dopaminergic cells (using tyrosine hydroxylase immunohistochemistry) and cells receptive to dopaminergic signaling (using DARPP-32 immunohistochemistry) throughout the brain of P. pustulosus. The distribution of dopaminergic cells was comparable to other anurans. DARPP-32 immunoreactivity was identified in key brain regions known to modulate social behavior in other vertebrates including the proposed anuran homologues of the mammalian amygdalar complex, nucleus accumbens, hippocampus, striatum, preoptic area, anterior hypothalamus, ventromedial hypothalamus, and ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra pars compacta. Due to its widespread distribution, DARPP-32 likely also plays many roles in non-limbic brain regions that mediate non-social information processing. These results significantly extend our understanding of the distribution of the dopaminergic system in the anuran brain and beyond.

    View details for DOI 10.1159/000321715

    View details for Web of Science ID 000286661000007

    View details for PubMedID 21099197