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Horm Behav. 2012 Sep;62(4):389-99. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.07.014. Epub 2012 Aug 24.

Social subordination impairs hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function in female rhesus monkeys.

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Division of Developmental & Cognitive Neuroscience, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta GA 30329, USA.


Linear dominance hierarchies organize and maintain stability in female rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) social groups regardless of group size. As a consequence of their low social status, subordinate females suffer from an array of adverse outcomes including reproductive compromise, impaired immune function, and poor cardiovascular health. However, data that differentiate limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (LHPA) parameters between dominant from subordinate female monkeys are inconsistent, bringing into question whether social subordination alters the LHPA axis in female macaques. One difficulty in examining LHPA function in macaques may be the confounding effects of cycling ovarian steroids that are known to modulate LHPA activity. The current study used ovariectomized dominant and subordinate female rhesus monkeys to examine the effect that social subordination has on LHPA function by measuring morning and diurnal serum cortisol levels, dexamethasone (Dex) suppression of cortisol, metabolic clearance of Dex, and ACTH stimulation of adrenal cortisol release and cortisol response following exposure to acute social isolation. Compared to dominant females, subordinate females showed diminished morning peak cortisol secretion, weakened glucocorticoid negative feedback, and decreased adrenal cortisol response to an ACTH challenge as well as a restrained cortisol response following social isolation. However, the metabolism of Dex did not account for differences in Dex suppression between dominant and subordinate females. These results indicate that the ability to mount and limit glucocorticoid release is significantly reduced by psychosocial stress in female rhesus macaques, suggesting a hyporesponsive LHPA phenotype which resembles that observed in several human psychopathologies.

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