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Mating is imperative for most species, but individuals show remarkable variation in their drive to mate. This plasticity arises because the valence of sexual behavior can vary from rewarding (appetitive) to aversive due to such diverse factors as the animal's internal state, its previous sexual experience, and the surrounding environment.
Which molecular and neural pathways mediate the valence of mating? What changes does mating cause in individuals (e.g., at the level of transcription, morphology, and behavior)? How does pathological social density regulate the mating valence (e.g., at the level of interaction between reward and stress pathways)? How are sex and other natural rewards, such as food, hierarchically controlled to produce coherent behavioral responses (e.g., at the level of behavioral selection)? To answer these questions, we must first understand what the molecular and neural substrates of sexual experience are and how the valence of sexual experience is assigned and processed in the brain. Model systems can provide mechanistic insight into how sexual stimuli are represented in the brain and how the valence of sexual experience impacts future behavior. Dr. Shao's laboratory investigates these questions in a tractable system, the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, by leveraging transcriptome profiling, genetic analysis, anatomy/connectome analysis, functional imaging, and quantitative behavioral measurements
Females learn from mating experiences so they can adjust future mating decisions accordingly (i.e., express the valence), which is critical because mating profoundly affects females' physiology, behavior, and well-being. Yet this topic has gone largely unstudied. The Shao lab recently identified a female-specific neural pathway whose activity is required for females to experience sexual reward (Figure 1), providing a superb platform to probe how the female brain represents mating valence at the molecular and cellular levels.
Dr. Shao has been awarded a Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA) R35 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to address the follow specific questions: what molecular and cellular pathways link the sexual reward pathway with the fly's primary learning centers? What molecular and cellular mechanisms contribute to neural morphological and behavioral plasticity in the sexual reward pathway after mating? How does social stress modulate the female sexual reward pathway?
Please visit the Shao lab website for more information. Dr. Shao's research lab was also highlighted in the Building X story.
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