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PLoS One. 2017 Feb 27;12(2):e0172868. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172868. eCollection 2017.

Physical versus psychological social stress in male rats reveals distinct cardiovascular, inflammatory and behavioral consequences.

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Department of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Neuroscience, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Columbia, South Carolina, United States of America.


Repeated exposure to social stress can precipitate the development of psychosocial disorders including depression and comorbid cardiovascular disease. While a major component of social stress often encompasses physical interactions, purely psychological stressors (i.e. witnessing a traumatic event) also fall under the scope of social stress. The current study determined whether the acute stress response and susceptibility to stress-related consequences differed based on whether the stressor consisted of physical versus purely psychological social stress. Using a modified resident-intruder paradigm, male rats were either directly exposed to repeated social defeat stress (intruder) or witnessed a male rat being defeated. Cardiovascular parameters, behavioral anhedonia, and inflammatory cytokines in plasma and the stress-sensitive locus coeruleus were compared between intruder, witness, and control rats. Surprisingly intruders and witnesses exhibited nearly identical increases in mean arterial pressure and heart rate during acute and repeated stress exposures, yet only intruders exhibited stress-induced arrhythmias. Furthermore, re-exposure to the stress environment in the absence of the resident produced robust pressor and tachycardic responses in both stress conditions indicating the robust and enduring nature of social stress. In contrast, the long-term consequences of these stressors were distinct. Intruders were characterized by enhanced inflammatory sensitivity in plasma, while witnesses were characterized by the emergence of depressive-like anhedonia, transient increases in systolic blood pressure and plasma levels of tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase. The current study highlights that while the acute cardiovascular responses to stress were identical between intruders and witnesses, these stressors produced distinct differences in the enduring consequences to stress, suggesting that witness stress may be more likely to produce long-term cardiovascular dysfunction and comorbid behavioral anhedonia while exposure to physical stressors may bias the system towards sensitivity to inflammatory disorders.

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