It is increasingly recognized that brain-derived estrogens (neuroestrogens) can regulate brain physiology and behavior much faster than what was previously known from the transcriptional action of estrogens on nuclear receptors. One of the best examples of such neuromodulation by neuroestrogens concerns the acute regulation of sensory coding by the auditory cortex as demonstrated by electrophysiological studies of selected neurons in zebra finches. Yet, the spatial extent of such modulation by neuroestrogens is not known. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrate here that acute estrogen depletion alters within minutes auditory processing in male European starlings. These effects are confined to very specific but large areas of the auditory cortex. They are also specifically lateralized to the left hemisphere. Interestingly, the modulation of auditory responses by estrogens was much larger (both in amplitude and in topography) in March than in December or May/June. This effect was presumably independent from changes in circulating testosterone concentrations since levels of the steroid were controlled by subcutaneous implants, thus suggesting actions related to other aspects of the seasonal cycle or photoperiodic manipulations. Finally, we also show that estrogen production specifically modulates selectivity for behaviorally relevant vocalizations in a specific part of the caudomedial nidopallium. These findings confirm and extend previous conclusions that had been obtained by electrophysiological techniques. This approach provides a new very powerful tool to investigate auditory responsiveness in songbirds and its fast modulation by sex steroids.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Neuroestrogens can acutely modulate sensory processing in a manner similar to neuromodulators. We report that acute estrogen depletion rapidly disrupts auditory processing in large areas of the male starling brain. Effects were larger in March than in December or May/June, lateralized to the left hemisphere and specific to behaviorally relevant stimuli. These findings confirm and extend previous data that identified an acute regulation of auditory neurons in zebra finches by (1) delineating the extent of the brain region affected, (2) confirming its lateralization, and (3) demonstrating that a large part of the auditory brain regions are acutely affected by estrogens. These findings provide a very powerful tool to investigate auditory responsiveness in songbirds and its fast modulation by sex steroids.