Listening to your partner: serotonin increases male responsiveness to female vocal signals in mice

Abstract

The context surrounding vocal communication can have a strong influence on how vocal signals are perceived. The serotonergic system is well-positioned for modulating the perception of communication signals according to context, because serotonergic neurons are responsive to social context, influence social behavior, and innervate auditory regions. Animals like lab mice can be excellent models for exploring how serotonin affects the primary neural systems involved in vocal perception, including within central auditory regions like the inferior colliculus (IC). Within the IC, serotonergic activity reflects not only the presence of a conspecific, but also the valence of a given social interaction. To assess whether serotonin can influence the perception of vocal signals in male mice, we manipulated serotonin systemically with an injection of its precursor 5-HTP, and locally in the IC with an infusion of fenfluramine, a serotonin reuptake blocker. Mice then participated in a behavioral assay in which males suppress their ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) in response to the playback of female broadband vocalizations (BBVs), used in defensive aggression by females when interacting with males. Both 5-HTP and fenfluramine increased the suppression of USVs during BBV playback relative to controls. 5-HTP additionally decreased the baseline production of a specific type of USV and male investigation, but neither drug treatment strongly affected male digging or grooming. These findings show that serotonin modifies behavioral responses to vocal signals in mice, in part by acting in auditory brain regions, and suggest that mouse vocal behavior can serve as a useful model for exploring the mechanisms of context in human communication

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