Social neuroendocrinology

Effects of social contexts and behaviors on sex steroids in humans

Abstract

In this paper we provide a critical review of research concerned with social/environmental mechanisms that modulate human neuroendocrine function. We survey research in four behavioral systems that have been shaped through evolution: competition, partnering, sex, and pregnancy/parenting. Generally, behavioral neuroendocrine research examines how hormones affect behavior. Instead, we focus on approaches that emphasize the effects of behavioral states on hormones (i.e., the “reverse relationship”), and their functional significance. We focus on androgens and estrogens because of their relevance to sexually selected traits. We conclude that the body of research employing a reversed or bidirectional perspective has an incomplete foundation: participants are mainly heterosexual men, and the functionality of induced shifts in neuroendocrine factors is generally unknown. This area of research is in its infancy, and opportunities abound for developing and testing intriguing research questions.

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Correspondence to Neil V. Watson Ph.D..

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S.M.vA. was supported by funding from a Post-Graduate Scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a UNESCO-NSERC-L’Oreal For Women In Science Supplement, and a C. D. Nelson Scholarship and other awards from Simon Fraser University. This paper was written in partial fulfillment of S.M.vA.’s doctoral dissertation requirements.

Sari M. van Anders, M.A., is pursuing a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. For her dissertation, she focuses on how complex social behaviors can alter human endocrine status in evolutionarily significant ways. Publications include “Testing the Prenatal Androgen Hypothesis: Measuring Digit Ratios, Spatial Abilities, and Sexual Orientation in Adults” (with E. Hampson, Hormones and Behavior 47:92–98, 2005) and “Relationship Status and Testosterone in North American Heterosexual and Non-heterosexual Men and Women: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Data” (with N. V. Watson, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31:715–723, 2006).

Neil V. Watson (Ph.D., UBC) is an associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, with interests centering on the sexual differentiation of the structure and function of the nervous system. Recent publications include “Selective and Persistent Effect of Fetal Sex on Cognitive Function in Pregnant Women” (with senior author C. M. Vanston, NeuroReport 16:779–782, 2005), “The Role of Androgen Receptors in Spatial Memory: Androgen Insensitive Male Rats in the Water Maze” (with senior author B. A. Jones, Physiology and Behavior 85:135–141, 2005), and “Regional Brainstem Expression of Fos Associated with Sexual Behavior in Male Rats” (with senior author D. K. Hamson, Brain Research 1002:233–240, 2004). Dr. Watson is also co-author (with Mark R. Rosenzweig and S. Marc Breedlove) of a major textbook: Introduction to Biological Psychology (Sinauer Associates, 2004).

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van Anders, S.M., Watson, N.V. Social neuroendocrinology. Hum Nat 17, 212–237 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-006-1018-7

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Key words

  • Androgen
  • Competition
  • Estrogen
  • Gender
  • Hormones
  • Mating
  • Parenting
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproduction
  • Relationships
  • Sex
  • Sexuality