Melatonin Shapes Brain Structure In Songbirds

causes songbirds' gonads to grow from the size of pepper flakes to marbles. It was almost as if birds entered puberty every spring, and then the gonads shrink again every fall. Scientists were able to link the rise in testosterone to actual physical changes in the brain's HVC.

But in recent years, Johns Hopkins scientists also noticed that even if songbirds are castrated, thus blocking the influence of testosterone, seasonal changes still affected the volume of HVC.

"The changes weren't as large," observed post-doctoral scientist Bentley, "but it was obvious that something else was controlling the change in volume. If it wasn't testosterone, what else could it be? Because we knew that many hormones are controlled by photoperiod, we decided to look at an obvious candidate, melatonin."

To conduct the study, European starlings without testosterone were exposed to a range of artificial daylight hours that induced reproductive states characterized by different seasons. By providing birds with melatonin, researchers found they could still have a direct effect on the HVC, reducing overall volume or otherwise attenuating its growth despite the amount of daylight.

"For example," Bentley said, "late in the summer, when birds terminate their reproductive activity and their gonads regress and testosterone disappears, the HVC doesn't really appear to shrink until later in the year. We think the effect of melatonin (which is secreted at night) is kicking in as the days get shorter, causing the volume of HVC to decrease slowly. To our knowledge, this is the first direct evidence of a role for melatonin in functional plasticity within the central nervous system of vertebrates."

Birds can be especially valuable in brain research because they exhibit radical changes in the brain in response to hormones, and scientists often are able to see a clear link between brain areas and behavior. In particular, general issues of brain plasticity, which are more diff

Contact: Gary Dorsey
Johns Hopkins University

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