• axonal boutons;
  • dendrites;
  • estradiol; glutamate;
  • immunoelectron microscopy;
  • lordosis;
  • microtubule-associated protein 2;
  • neurohypophyseal tract;
  • neuropeptide;
  • progesterone;
  • synaptophysin;
  • vesicular glutamatergic transporter 2


Central oxytocin (OT) modulates many social behaviors, including female rat sexual receptivity, quantified as the copulatory stance known as lordosis. The expression of the lordosis response is modulated by OT action in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (VMH), as demonstrated by behavioral pharmacology experiments. However, the subcellular localization of OT in this brain region has been unclear. We tested the hypothesis that ovarian hormones reorganize OT-labeled pre- or postsynaptic elements in the fiber complex lateral to the VMH by using immunoelectron microscopy. OT immunolabeling occurred in axonal boutons identified by the presence of small, clear synaptic vesicles and double labeling with the presynaptic markers synaptophysin and vesicular glutamate transporter 2. OT immunoreactivity also was observed in dendritic profiles, verified with double labeling for the dendrite-specific marker microtubule-associated protein 2. Ovarian hormones did not alter the density of axonal boutons; however, estradiol treatment reduced the density of dendritic profiles by 34%. This effect was reversed when progesterone was given subsequent to estradiol. The effect of estradiol treatment was specific to dendrites that lacked OT immunostaining; the density of OT-labeled dendritic profiles remained constant during estradiol treatment. With the estradiol-induced exit of non-OT-labeled dendritic profiles, the remaining OT-labeled dendritic profiles experienced an increase in their number of synaptic contacts. Thus, hormone treatments that mimic the 4-day rat estrous cycle provoke a chemically coded reorganization of dendrite innervation in the fiber plexus lateral to the VMH that may underlie the hormone-specific effect of OT on reproductive behavior. J. Comp. Neurol. 518:4531–4545, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.