Arch Sex Behav. 2012 Feb;41(1):31-62. doi: 10.1007/s10508-012-9935-5.
Although sexual behavior is controlled by hormonal and neurochemical actions in the brain, sexual experience induces a degree of plasticity that allows animals to form instrumental and Pavlovian associations that predict sexual outcomes, thereby directing the strength of sexual responding. This review describes how experience with sexual reward strengthens the development of sexual behavior and induces sexually-conditioned place and partner preferences in rats. In both male and female rats, early sexual experience with partners scented with a neutral or even noxious odor induces a preference for scented partners in subsequent choice tests. Those preferences can also be induced by injections of morphine or oxytocin paired with a male rat’s first exposure to scented females, indicating that pharmacological activation of opioid or oxytocin receptors can “stand in” for the sexual reward-related neurochemical processes normally activated by sexual stimulation. Conversely, conditioned place or partner preferences can be blocked by the opioid receptor antagonist naloxone. A somatosensory cue (a rodent jacket) paired with sexual reward comes to elicit sexual arousal in male rats, such that paired rats with the jacket off show dramatic copulatory deficits. We propose that endogenous opioid activation forms the basis of sexual reward, which also sensitizes hypothalamic and mesolimbic dopamine systems in the presence of cues that predict sexual reward. Those systems act to focus attention on, and activate goal-directed behavior toward, reward-related stimuli. Thus, a critical period exists during an individual’s early sexual experience that creates a “love map” or Gestalt of features, movements, feelings, and interpersonal interactions associated with sexual reward.