Anxiety-like behavior and neuropeptide receptor expression in male and female prairie voles: The effects of stress and social buffering

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Abstract

Strong social support can negate negative health outcomes – an effect defined as ‘social buffering’. In the present study, using the socially monogamous prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), we examined whether the presence of a bonded partner during a stressful event can reduce stress responses. Adult, pair-bonded female and male voles were assigned into experimental groups that were either handled (Control), experienced a 1-h immobilization (IMO) stress alone (IMO-Alone), or experienced IMO with their partner (IMO-Partner). Thereafter, subjects were tested for anxiety-like behavior, and brain sections were subsequently processed for oxytocin receptor (OTR) and vasopressin V1a-type receptor (V1aR) binding. Our data indicate that while IMO stress significantly decreased the time that subjects spent in the open arms of an elevated plus maze, partner's presence prevented this behavioral change – this social buffering on anxiety-like behavior was the same for both male and female subjects. Further, IMO stress decreased OTR binding in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), but a partner's presence dampened this effect. No effects were found in V1aR binding. These data suggest that the neuropeptide- and brain region-specific OTR alterations in the NAcc may be involved in both the mediation and social buffering of stress responses. Some sex differences in the OTR and V1aR binding were also found in selected brain regions, offering new insights into the sexually dimorphic roles of the two neuropeptides. Overall, our results suggest a potential preventative approach in which the presence of social interactions during a stressor may buffer typical negative outcomes.

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