Visible burrow system as a model of chronic social stress: Behavoral and neuroendocrine correlates
In mixed-sex rat groups maintained in visible burrow systems (VBS), consistent asymmetries in offensive and defensive behaviors of male dyads are associated with the development of dominance hierarchies. Subordinate males are characterized by particular wound patterns, severe weight loss, and a variety of behavioral changes, many of them isomorphic to target symptoms of clinical depression. In two VBS studies, subordinate males showed increased basal levels of plasma corticosterone (CORT), and increased adjusted adrenal and spleen weights compared to controls, and often, to dominants as well. Thymus weights and testosterone levels of subordinates were not reliably different in one study using highly aggressive males, but were reduced, along with testes weights, in a second study using unselected males. Glucocorticoid receptor binding levels in hippocampus, hypothalamus, and pituitary were not different, nor were aldosterone levels. When tested in a restraint stress procedure, subordinates had higher basal CORT levels, but about 40% of these animals showed a reduced, or absent, CORT response to restraint. These findings indicate that subordination may be reflected in high magnitude changes consistent with physiological indices of prolonged stress. Dominant rats of such groups may also show physiological changes suggesting stress, particularly when the groups are comprised of highly aggressive males only. The VBS colony model thus appears to enable rat groups to produce natural, stress-engendering, social interactions that constitute a particularly relevant model for investigating the behavioral, neural, and endocrine correlates of chronic stress.