Social hierarchies, sex, and stress

Social hierarchies and sex may play an important role in how individuals respond to chronic stress.
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Image credit: S. Anpilov (CC BY 4.0)

Most people experience chronic stress at some point in their life, which may increase their chances of developing depression or anxiety. There is evidence that chronic stress may more negatively impact the well-being of women, placing them as higher risk of developing these mental health conditions. The biological factors that underlie these differences are not well understood, which leaves clinicians and scientists struggling to develop and provide effective treatments.

The social environment has a powerful influence on how people experience and cope with stress. For example, a person’s social and socioeconomic status can change their perception of and reaction to everyday stress. Researchers have found differences in how men and women relate to their social standing. One way for scientists to learn more about the biological processes involved is to study the effect of social standing and chronic stress in male and female mice.

Now, Karamihalev, Brivio et al. show that social status influences the behavior of stressed mice in a sex-specific way. In the experiments, an automated observation system documented the behavior of mice living in all female or male groups. Karamihalev, Brivio et al. determined where each animal fit into the social structure of their group. Then, they exposed some groups of mice to mild chronic stress and compared their behaviors to groups of mice housed in normal conditions. They found that both the sex and social status of each played a role in how they responded to stress. For example, subordinate males displayed more anxious behavior under stressful circumstances, while dominant females acted bolder and less anxious.

More studies in mice are needed to understand the biological basis of these social- and sex-based differences in stress response. Learning more may help scientists understand why some individuals are more susceptible to the effects of stress and lead to the development of personalized prevention or treatment strategies for anxiety and depression.