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Mei-Fang Cheng

mei cheng

Professor I
Ph.D., Bryn Mawr College
Postdoctoral training, University of Pennsylvania
Rutgers University, Psychology Department
101 Warren Street, Smith Hall Room 4-127
Newark, NJ, 07102
Phone: (973) 353-5440 x1828
Fax: (973) 353-1171
E-mail: mfc at (@) psychology.rutgers.edu

Research Interests

Hidden function of courtship behavior in species survival

Social behavior is essential to the survival of high vertebrate animals, including humans. Various studies have focused on how social interaction brings about changes in behavior of social partners. Our lab has uncovered unsuspected effects of social behavior on an individual's physiology and behavior that contribute to successful social interaction and achieving a common goal. Our studies with ring doves show that a female's behavior not only sends a signal to a social partner (a male), but also affects the female's own physiology and behavior, a critical function for a successful breeding cycle. Using electrophysiology, pituitary hormone radioimmunoassay and neural tract tracing methods, we have identified a group of acoustic neurons in the hypothalamus that specifically detects a female's courtship nest-cooing. Activation of these neurons signals adjacent neurosecretory (GnRH) neurons to trigger a sequence of reproductive endocrine responses that culminate in hormonal release responsible for ovarian follicular growth and ovulation. Furthermore, we speculate that this nest-cooing self stimulation mechanism maybe a precursor of "mirror neurons" that have been documented in primate and humans. In species such as ring doves, where cortical structure and function are not well developed, the need to "understand" signals from a social partner is nevertheless crucial for their survival. We submit that a comparable hormonal state achieved through behavioral self-stimulation may provide the basis for signal recognition. A female's understanding of a male's nest-cooing is made possible because the same hormone (estrogen) is involved when she performs the nest-cooing. This shared hormonal state is analogous to "mirror neuron" activation which is thought to be the neural basis for cognitive recognition of actions in primates.

Adult neurogenesis in recovery of function after brain damage

Recovery of function following brain injury is one of today's most pressing health issues. While it is commonly held that unlike bodily systems, the adult mammalian brain is incapable of replacing neurons following injury because neurogenesis stops shortly after birth, there is recent evidence to the contrary. This raises the possibility that adult neurogenesis may play a role in brain repair. However, studies to establish the role of new neurons in the recovery of adult brain function has been hampered by a lack of reliable bioassays and behavioral measures. Our lab has delineated specific functions of three groups of neurons in the hypothalamus that are causally associated with courtship behavior (nest-cooing). Deep knowledge of these neurons offers an opportunity to track the functional loss of these neurons after brain injury and to monitor how recovery of these specific function correlates with the maturation of new neurons. The adult hypothalamus contains (1) acoustic units (selectively responsive to nest-cooing) that control reproductive endocrine output, (2) projection neurons connected to the motor nuclei that produce nest cooing, and (3) secretory neurons (GnRH) that regulate the reproductive endocrine system. These neurons can be identified or measured by electrophysiological properties, endocrine output, neuronal tracing method and behavioral measures. Biological functions of newborn neurons therefore can be established. New neurons can be identified using an immunohistochemical stain for BrdU (analogue for thymidine and indicator of DNA synthesis) and neuron-specific antibodies. Laser confocal imaging analysis offers further confirmation. We are now poised to assess the role of social factors in the recovery of brain function by assessing their effect on the survival of newborn neurons. Having established the positive effect of a female on a male's recovery after hypothalamic damage, we are exploring the role of other social factors. Our recent finding that ZENK (EGR1) expression in the avian amygdala can more reliably predict pair bonding than behavioral measures has prompted us to investigate the significance of pair bonding in general and its specific role in adult neurogenesis.

Selected Publications

A. On Neurobiology of vocal behavior

Cheng, M.F. (1992). For whom does the female dove coo? A case for the role of vocal self-stimulation. Animal Behavior, 43: 1035-1044.

Durand,S. Tepper, J. and Cheng, M.F. (1992). The shell region of the nucleus ovoidalis: A subdivision of the avian auditory thalamus. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 323: 495-518.

Cheng, M.F. and Zuo, M. (1994). Proposed pathways for vocal self-stimulation: metenkephalinergic projections linking the midbrain vocal nucleus, auditory-responsive thalamic regions and neurosecretory hypothalamus. Journal of Neurobiology, 25:361-379

Cheng, M.-F. and Peng, J.P. (1997). Reciprocal talk between the auditory thalamus and the hypothalamus: an antidromic study. Neuroreport. 6:7-10

Cheng, M.-F., Peng, J.P. and Patricia Johnson (1998). GnRH neurons preferentially respond to female nest coo stimulation: Demonstration of direct acoustic stimulation of luteinizing hormone release . Journal of Neuronscience, 18:5477-5489.

MF Cheng, C. Chaiken, M. Zuo, H.Miller (1999) Nucleus taenia of the amygdala of birds: Anatomical and functional studies in reing doves (Streptopelia risoria) and European starlingsw (Sturnus vulgaris). Brain Behavior and Evolution 53:243-270.

MF Cheng (2003) Vocal self-stimulation: From the ring dove story to emotion-based vocal communication. In In Advances in the Study of Behavior  (eds. Peter L.B. Slater, Jay S Rosenblatt, CT Snowden, and T.J. Roper)  Academic Press  Vol. 33:309-353. [PDF]

MF Cheng, Sarah E. Durand (2004) Song and the Limbic Brain: A New Function for the Bird's Own Song.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1016: 611-627 [PDF]

Cheng, MF (2005) Audio-vocal pathways controlling  GnRH release. In "Functional Avian Endocrinology" (A Dawson & PJ Sharp Eds) 

B. On Adult Neurogenesis

Ling, C., MF Cheng (1995) Sex differences in cell proliferation in the ventricular zone of young ring doves. Brain Research Bulletin 37:657-662.

Ling, C., Alvarez-Buylla, A. and Cheng, M.F. (1997). Neurogenesis in juvenile and adult ring doves. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 379: 1-13

Cao J, K. Wenberg, MF Cheng (2002) Lesion induced new neuron incorporation in the adult hypothalamus of the hypothalamus of the avian brain. Brain Research943:90-92 [PDF]

Cheng, MF. JP Peng, G Chen, JP Gardner, E Bonder (2004) Functional restoration of acoustic units and adult-generated neurons after hypothalamic lesion. J Neurobiol 60:197-213. [PDF]

G Chen, E Bonder & MF Cheng (2006) Lesion induced neurogenesis in the hypothalamus is involved in behavioral recovery in adult ring doves. J. Neurobiol. 66: 537-551.

Chen G, Cheng MF (2007) Inhibition of Lesion-Induced Neurogenesis Impaired Behavioral Recovery in Adult Ring Doves. Behav. Brain Res. 177:358-363.

Cheng, MF (2008) The role of vocal self-stimulation in female response to males: implications for state-reading. Hormones and Behavior. 53(1) : 1-10.

Cheng, MF (2011) Newborn GnRH neurons in the adult forebrain of the ring dove. Hormone & Behavior. 60: 94-104.

Cheng, MF & Durand S. (2004) Song and the Limbic Brain: A New Function for the Bird's Own Song . Ann NY Acad Sci. 1016: 611

Cheng, MF (2005) Audio-Vocal Pathways controlling GnRH Release. In: Functional Avian Endocrinology ( A Dawson & PJ Sharp, Eds.).

Chen G, Bonder E & Cheng MF (2006) Lesion induced neurogenesis in the hypothalamus is involved in behavioral recovery in adult ring doves. J. Neurobiol. 66: 537-551.

Chen G, Cheng MF (2007) Inhibition of Lesion-Induced Neurogenesis Impaired Behavioral Recovery in Adult Ring Doves. Behav. Brain Res. 177:358-363.

Cheng, MF (2008) The role of vocal self-stimulation in female response to males: implications for state-reading. Hormones and Behavior. 53(1) : 1-10.

Chen G, Bonder E & Cheng MF (2006) Lesion induced neurogenesis in the hypothalamus is involved i n behavioral recovery in adult ring doves. J. Neurobiol. 66: 537-551.

Chen G, Cheng MF (2007) Inhibition of Lesion-Induced Neurogenesis Impaired Behavioral Recovery in Adult Ring Doves. Behav. Brain Res. 177:358-363.

Chen G, Cheng MF (2007) Inhibition of Lesion-Induced Neurogenesis Impaired Behavioral Recovery in Adult Ring Doves. Behav. Brain Res. 177:358-363.

Cheng, MF (2008) The role of vocal self-stimulation in female response to males: implications for state-reading. Hormones and Behavior. 53(1) : 1-10.

Cheng, MF (2011) Newborn GnRH neurons in the adult forebrain of the ring dove. Hormone & Behavior. 60: 94-104.