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Female mating neurons discovered in fruit fly studies

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Specific sets of neurons, a specific type of neuron, and a uterine peptide have been discovered to have a major role in the control of sexual behavior in female fruit flies. Dr. Bruce Baker of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia and Dr. Leslie Vosshall of the Rockefeller University in New York City reported the discoveries in the July 2, 2014, editions of the journals Neuron and Current Biology. The three studies are expected to have implications for female humans and animals sexual behavior.

Dr. Baker discovered a distinct set of neurons in the brain of female fruit flies that moderate the female’s response to male pheromones and courtship songs. Dr. Vosshall found a specific set of neurons in the abdominal nerve cord and reproductive tract of the female fruit fly that control the female’s movements and allow the female to pause for copulation. Dr. Vosshall also discovered a sex peptide delivered in sperm that prevents the female fruit fly from mating with another fruit fly for as long as 10 days post fertilization.

The sex peptide that eliminates the mating instinct in female fruit flies was found to be active in the region of the fly brain that is equivalent to the human hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is known to be a center of sexual receptivity in humans. Inactivation of the neurons that control the pausing of female flies to mate produced a response that prohibited sexual interaction.

All three studies infer that similar neurons and sexual peptides that control mating behavior should exist in mammals including humans. The implication is that a female’s choice of mates is in part at least controlled by genetically distinct nerve groups. If similar nerve groups are found in humans, the neurons could be a locus for mitigating the effects of some human sexual dysfunction. One might also think the discovery could lead to a more sophisticated type of date-rape drug or a perfume that targets hypothalamic response.