Adolescent gain in positive valence of a socially relevant stimulus: engagement of the mesocorticolimbic reward circuitry


Correspondence: Dr. Margaret R. Bell,



A successful transition from childhood to adulthood requires adolescent maturation of social information processing. The neurobiological underpinnings of this maturational process remain elusive. This research employed the male Syrian hamster as a tractable animal model for investigating the neural circuitry involved in this critical transition. In this species, adult and juvenile males display different behavioral and neural responses to vaginal secretions, which contain pheromones essential for expression of sexual behavior in adulthood. These studies tested the hypothesis that vaginal secretions acquire positive valence over adolescent development via remodeling of neural circuits underlying sexual reward. Sexually naïve adult, but not juvenile, hamsters showed a conditioned place preference for vaginal secretions. Differences in behavioral response to vaginal secretions between juveniles and adults correlated with a difference in the vaginal secretion-induced neural activation pattern in mesocorticolimbic reward circuitry. Fos immunoreactivity increased in response to vaginal secretions in the medial amygdala and ventral tegmental dopaminergic cells of both juvenile and adult males. However, only in adults was there a Fos response to vaginal secretions in non-dopaminergic cells in interfascicular ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens core and infralimbic medial prefrontal cortex. These results demonstrate that a socially relevant chemosensory stimulus acquires the status of an unconditioned reward during adolescence, and that this adolescent gain in social reward is correlated with experience-independent engagement of specific cell groups in reward circuitry.