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Theses Doctoral

The Role of Social Context in Modulating Gene Expression, Neural Activity, and Neuroendocrine Response in Individuals of Varying Social Status

Williamson, Caitlin

Social context, which includes both the direct social experience of individuals as well as the characteristics of their social network as a whole, has been shown to be an important modulator of behavior across species. However, relatively little is known about the role of social context in regulating the complex relationships between neurobiology, neuroendocrine response, and behavior in mammals. Historically, the neurobiology of social behavior has been studied at the dyadic level, looking at brief social interactions between pairs of individuals. Given that all social species live in groups, rather than pairs, it is essential that we begin to understand the role social context at the group level plays in regulating physiology. Throughout this thesis, I use a novel behavioral housing system to study how the characteristics of stable social groups and how instances of social opportunity, when individuals are ascending up a social hierarchy, are associated with differential brain gene expression, neuroendocrine output, and behavior. I first extensively analyze the social dynamics of male dominance hierarchies, showing that they are both consistent, in that males reliably form significantly linear dominance hierarchies, and unique, in that the characteristics of these hierarchies vary from group to group. I further prove that mice living in these social hierarchies are extremely socially competent, displaying the ability to respond appropriately to individuals of varying social status. I demonstrate that females are capable of forming dominance hierarchies as well, but that their hierarchies differ from those of males. I then use this foundational knowledge to investigate how these different hierarchy characteristics can lead to differences in physiology, how one’s social status is associated with brain gene expression and neuroendocrine response, and how disruption of a hierarchy through removal of the alpha male leads to robust behavioral as well as physiological consequences. Finally, I use the insights gained from this immediate early gene work to demonstrate the crucial role of the infralimbic/prelimbic region of the medial prefrontal cortex in regulating socially competent response to changing social contexts. Taken together, this work establishes the broad role social context plays in regulating the complex relationships between behavior, brain gene expression, neural activation, and neuroendocrine output.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Curley, James P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 16, 2018