Open Access Research article

Gene expression patterns in four brain areas associate with quantitative measure of estrous behavior in dairy cows

Arun Kommadath1*, Henri Woelders1, Bonne Beerda12, Herman A Mulder1, Agnes AC de Wit1, Roel F Veerkamp1, Marinus FW te Pas1 and Mari A Smits1

Author Affiliations

1 Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, Wageningen UR Livestock Research, P.O. Box 65, 8200 AB Lelystad, The Netherlands

2 Adaptation Physiology Group, Department of Animal Sciences, Wageningen University, 6709 PG Wageningen, The Netherlands

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:200  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-200

Published: 19 April 2011



The decline noticed in several fertility traits of dairy cattle over the past few decades is of major concern. Understanding of the genomic factors underlying fertility, which could have potential applications to improve fertility, is very limited. Here, we aimed to identify and study those genes that associated with a key fertility trait namely estrous behavior, among genes expressed in four bovine brain areas (hippocampus, amygdala, dorsal hypothalamus and ventral hypothalamus), either at the start of estrous cycle, or at mid cycle, or regardless of the phase of cycle.


An average heat score was calculated for each of 28 primiparous cows in which estrous behavior was recorded for at least two consecutive estrous cycles starting from 30 days post-partum. Gene expression was then measured in brain tissue samples collected from these cows, 14 of which were sacrificed at the start of estrus and 14 around mid cycle. For each brain area, gene expression was modeled as a function of the orthogonally transformed average heat score values using a Bayesian hierarchical mixed model. Genes whose expression patterns showed significant linear or quadratic relationships with heat scores were identified. These included genes expected to be related to estrous behavior as they influence states like socio-sexual behavior, anxiety, stress and feeding motivation (OXT, AVP, POMC, MCHR1), but also genes whose association with estrous behavior is novel and warrants further investigation.


Several genes were identified whose expression levels in the bovine brain associated with the level of expression of estrous behavior. The genes OXT and AVP play major roles in regulating estrous behavior in dairy cows. Genes related to neurotransmission and neuronal plasticity are also involved in estrous regulation, with several genes and processes expressed in mid-cycle probably contributing to proper expression of estrous behavior in the next estrus. Studying these genes and the processes they control improves our understanding of the genomic regulation of estrous behavior expression.