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Physiological and Pathophysiological Implications of Social Stress in Mammals

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Abstract

The sections in this article are:

1 Social Subordinance as an Environmental Stressor
1.1 Varieties of Hierarchical Ranking Systems among Mammals
1.2 What Is Stressful about Having a Particular Social Rank in a Hierarchy?
2 The Adrenocortical Axis
3 Cardiovascular Function and Disease
4 Reproductive Physiology
4.1 Females
4.2 Males
5 Immunity
6 Limits to the Importance of Rank
6.1 The Societal Context of Rank
6.2 The Personal Experience of Rank
6.3 Personality
7 Conclusions and Relevance to Humans
Figure 1. Figure 1.

The mechanism regulating the release of cortisol is disrupted in subordinate males, which helps explain the finding that, under normal circumstances, the mean basal cortisol levels of subordinate males are higher than those of dominant males. In both groups of animals, the release of cortisol increases in response to stress (downward arrows); the hypothalamus secretes CRF, which causes the pituitary to release ACTH, this causes adrenal glands to release cortisol into the blood. In dominant males (right arrows), the hypothalamus receives accurate feedback from the blood so that the brain is informed soon after a threshold level of cortisol is reached; the brain then inhibits the secretion of CRF and its relatives, leading to a decline in cortisol release. In subordinate baboons (left arrows) the feedback signal is weak, so the brain is informed that cortisol levels are low even when they are actually high. Consequently, the hypothalamus markedly increases its secretion of CRF and related hormones. The pituitary of subordinates is somewhat insensitive to such substances, but the large amounts reaching the pituitary nonetheless trigger an increase in the secretion of corticotropin, which then leads to chronic hypersecretion of cortisol.

From Sapolsky with permission
Figure 2. Figure 2.

Dominant baboons with certain personality traits (black) have lower basal levels of cortisol than do other dominant males (gray), which suggests that attitude is a more important mediator of physiology than rank alone. Dominant males who can distinguish between the threatening and neutral actions of a rival have cortisol levels that are about half as high as those of other dominant males (a). Similarly, low cortisol levels are found in males who start a fight with a threatening rival instead of waiting to be attacked (b); who distinguish between having won and lost a fight (c); or who, when they do lose, take out their frustration on subordinates (d).

From Sapolsky , with permission


Figure 1.

The mechanism regulating the release of cortisol is disrupted in subordinate males, which helps explain the finding that, under normal circumstances, the mean basal cortisol levels of subordinate males are higher than those of dominant males. In both groups of animals, the release of cortisol increases in response to stress (downward arrows); the hypothalamus secretes CRF, which causes the pituitary to release ACTH, this causes adrenal glands to release cortisol into the blood. In dominant males (right arrows), the hypothalamus receives accurate feedback from the blood so that the brain is informed soon after a threshold level of cortisol is reached; the brain then inhibits the secretion of CRF and its relatives, leading to a decline in cortisol release. In subordinate baboons (left arrows) the feedback signal is weak, so the brain is informed that cortisol levels are low even when they are actually high. Consequently, the hypothalamus markedly increases its secretion of CRF and related hormones. The pituitary of subordinates is somewhat insensitive to such substances, but the large amounts reaching the pituitary nonetheless trigger an increase in the secretion of corticotropin, which then leads to chronic hypersecretion of cortisol.

From Sapolsky with permission


Figure 2.

Dominant baboons with certain personality traits (black) have lower basal levels of cortisol than do other dominant males (gray), which suggests that attitude is a more important mediator of physiology than rank alone. Dominant males who can distinguish between the threatening and neutral actions of a rival have cortisol levels that are about half as high as those of other dominant males (a). Similarly, low cortisol levels are found in males who start a fight with a threatening rival instead of waiting to be attacked (b); who distinguish between having won and lost a fight (c); or who, when they do lose, take out their frustration on subordinates (d).

From Sapolsky , with permission
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Robert M. Sapolsky. Physiological and Pathophysiological Implications of Social Stress in Mammals. Compr Physiol 2011, Supplement 23: Handbook of Physiology, The Endocrine System, Coping with the Environment: Neural and Endocrine Mechanisms: 517-532. First published in print 2001. doi: 10.1002/cphy.cp070423