Investigating a Neural Circuit for Female Reproductive Behavior using Viral Tools in Songbirds

Elena Cruz-Adames

Funding Source



Professor of Biology & Co-Director, Biological Basis of Behavior Program

Project Summary

The ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (VMH) serves as a critical brain center for the control of female reproductive behavior in mammals. In particular, VMH is considered necessary for evoking lordosis, a sexually receptive behavior in female rodents. The involvement of the VMH in reproductive behaviors in birds is not well understood however it has been implicated in female courtship behaviors such as the copulation solicitation display (CSD), a behavior analogous to lordosis. This project aims to investigate the neural connectivity between VMH and a midbrain center known to be necessary for female reproductive behavior in songbirds. During the summer, I worked closely with Dr. Schmidt to complete as many surgeries as possible within the breeding season window. We injected a virus that would enable us to trace neural pathways in a brainstem nucleus in female brown-headed cowbirds. After we allowed time for the virus to travel through the brain, the animals were perfused and I processed the tissue. I was able to stain the sections and mount them onto slides so that I could then observe the brain tissue and identify the injection site and labelled areas. This was done by using a dissecting fluorescence microscope.

Throughout this experience, I gained insight on the mindset needed to conduct research. Determination and diligence are certainly important for those participating in research simply because it can be taxing. During this summer, I definitely encountered a number of challenges. The experiments we were conducting were time consuming and oftentimes would not necessarily reap immediate results due to the many steps in between the surgeries and the tissue-processing for example. Additionally, there were many points that involved troubleshooting methods and techniques.

Overall, this opportunity has essentially given me a glimpse into what the future could entail. Graduate school has always been in the back of my mind, but I have not always given it serious thought. However, after working on a project such as this and having the support of my mentor, the potential of seeing myself go to graduate school seems tangible. It can definitely be said that this research experience is thoroughly enriching my college education presently, and perhaps is unknowingly opening a path to future scientific endeavors.

To see my poster, please visit Penn Presents: