Books  Ecological & Biological Sciences  Animal & General Biology  Animals: Behaviour 

How the Vertebrate Brain Regulates Behavior: Direct from the Lab


By: Donald W Pfaff(Author)

230 pages, 28 b/w illustrations

Harvard University Press

Hardback | May 2017 | #235597 | ISBN-13: 9780674660311
Availability: Usually dispatched within 48 hours
NHBS Price: £27.95 $37/€32 approx

About this book

Throughout his remarkable career, Donald Pfaff has demonstrated that by choosing problems and methods with care, biologists can study the molecular mechanisms of brains more complex than those of fruit flies, snails, roundworms, and other invertebrates. His half-century in the lab, starting with his discovery of hormone receptors in the brains of mammals and leading to the first detailed account of a neural circuit for mammalian behaviour, puts him in a unique position to survey the origins and development of behavioural neurobiology and the current state of research. How the Vertebrate Brain Regulates Behavior offers a close-up, conversational perspective on scientific struggles and successes throughout a fifty-year quest to understand how behaviour is regulated in a complex organism.

In graduate school, when Pfaff expressed a desire to study behavioural regulation, his advisor suggested focusing on hormones. Pfaff's investigation into the hormonal basis of female sexual behaviour in laboratory rats led him to a comprehensive appreciation of how hormone-dependent neurons work through neural circuits to produce discrete behaviours among all vertebrates. This breakthrough, along with other researchers' findings, established a link between molecular biology and neuroscience that opened up a fruitful new field of inquiry.

Pfaff's approach is to focus on one solvable problem and explore it from many angles. He begins with a single observed behaviour and traces its regulation through a series of biological mechanisms – from hormones to genes to neural circuits. Pfaff's relentless pursuit of his goals continues to inspire neuroscientists today.

"This book is an authoritative, historical account of our understanding of the brain and behavior, and serves as an important example of how intellectual curiosity drives science forward."
– Eric B. Keverne, University of Cambridge

"In this highly personal and readable narrative, Donald Pfaff describes how scientists approach and then systematically resolve a biologically significant research question. In this case, the quest is to understand how the vertebrate brain controls a naturally occurring behavior. The book takes the reader through five decades of progress as Pfaff and others focus on a specific hormone-regulated vertebrate behavior, the lordosis reflex, and apply rapidly evolving methods to elucidate the neural circuits and molecular underpinnings of that behavior. Pfaff then goes on to place this simple behavior into the larger context of behaviorally significant brain processes such as arousal, providing insights into broader principles of behavioral regulation."
– Anne M. Etgen, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

"In this book, Donald Pfaff, a leader in the study of behavioral endocrinology, chronicles the work of his research group over the past 50 years. With great tenacity, Pfaff has focused primarily on the hormonal control of a relatively simple vertebrate behavior, dissecting its control by one step, one neurochemical, and one neuron at a time. This engaging book provides the fascinating background and rationales for each step in the research."
– Jeffrey D. Blaustein, University of Massachusetts, Amherst



1. Hormone Receptors
2. Discovering the Neural Circuit for a Vertebrate Behavior Essential to Reproduction
3. Hormonal Regulation of Gene Expression in the Brain
4. Genes Regulating Behavior
5. Neuropeptide: Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone
6. Neuropeptide: Oxytocin
7. Brain–Body Relations
8. Central Nervous System Arousal Fueling Instinctive Behaviors
9. Sex Difference
10. Summary


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Donald Pfaff is Professor of Neurobiology and Behaviour at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

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