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Melatonin Shapes Brain Structure In Songbirds

First Evidence Of Melatonin's Role In Brain Plasticity

Springtime's lengthening days spark the growth of gonads and a rush of sex hormones that drive songbirds to melodic and erotic flights of fancy.

That much, scientists have known for some time.

But for the first time, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University have also identified the mysterious hormone melatonin as a critical ingredient that regulates those invigorating song bursts and fine-tunes the profound effects of testosterone on the brain.

"We think this is exciting," said Gregory Ball, a professor of psychology, who studies the interrelation of hormones, brain and behavior in song birds. "There is a lot of interest in melatonin, particularly in mammals, but there has never been any indication that it affects brain plasticity like this. The fact that it would have a direct effect on a brain area in birds and influence its volume, as we have just found, has never been addressed in other species. Perhaps one thing a study of this sort will do is encourage people to broaden their search."

The findings, co-authored by Ball and George Bentley, both of Johns Hopkins, and Thomas J. Van't Hof, of the Max Planck Institute, have just been reported in the most recent issue of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" [full text available to subscribers to the journal].

About 20 years ago, it was discovered that a portion of a bird's brain involved in the control of song (known as the high vocal center, or HVC) actually increases in volume as days grow longer. Scientists realized that the regular increase in photostimulation caused by longer daylight hours in the spring is what leads to a higher level of testosterone and prompts males to sing more to attract mates and to defend against competitors. The longer daylight hours of springtime, they found,
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Contact: Gary Dorsey
gdd@jhu.edu
410-516-7160
Johns Hopkins University
14-Apr-1999


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