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Moderate Stress-Induced Social Bonding and Oxytocin Signaling are Disrupted by Predator Odor in Male Rats.

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Jul;41(8):2160-70

Authors: Muroy SE, Long KL, Kaufer D, Kirby ED

In times of stress, social support can serve as a potent buffering mechanism that enhances resilience. In humans, stress can promote protective affiliative interactions and prosocial behavior. Yet, stress also precipitates psychopathologies characterized by social withdrawal such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The factors that drive adaptive vs maladaptive social responses to stress are not yet clear. Rodent studies have focused on pair-bonded, opposite-sex mates and suggest that a variety of stressors can induce social support-like behaviors. However, between same-sex conspecifics-particularly males-stress effects on social bonding are less understood and often associated with aggression and social unrest. We thus sought to investigate if a moderate stressor-3 h of acute immobilization-impacts social-support behaviors differently when experienced in a neutral vs more innately threatening context (ie, paired with predator odor). We found that moderate stress increased social support-seeking behavior in rat cagemates and facilitated long-term sharing of a limited water resource, decreased aggression, and strongly defined dominance ranks (an indicator of home cage stability). In contrast, experiencing the same stressor in the presence of predator odor eliminated the positive behavioral effects of moderate stress. Importantly, hypothalamic oxytocin (OT) signaling increased coincident with stress in a neutral-but not a predator odor-context. Our results define a novel rodent model of divergent stress effects on social affiliation and OT signaling dependent on odor context with particularly strong relevance to stress-related disorders such as PTSD, which are characterized by a disrupted ability to seek and maintain social bonds.

PMID: 26830961 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]