Social information changes stress hormone receptor expression in the songbird brain

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Abstract

Social information is used by many vertebrate taxa to inform decision-making, including resource-mediated movements, yet the mechanisms whereby social information is integrated physiologically to affect such decisions remain unknown. Social information is known to influence the physiological response to food reduction in captive songbirds. Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) that were food reduced for several days showed significant elevations in circulating corticosterone (a “stress” hormone often responsive to food limitation) only if their neighbors were similarly food restricted. Physiological responses to glucocorticoid hormones are enacted through two receptors that may be expressed differentially in target tissues. Therefore, we investigated the influence of social information on the expression of the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA in captive red crossbill brains. Although the role of MR and GR in the response to social information may be highly complex, we specifically predicted social information from food-restricted individuals would reduce MR and GR expression in two brain regions known to regulate hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity - given that reduced receptor expression may lessen the efficacy of negative feedback and release inhibitory tone on the HPA. Our results support these predictions - offering one potential mechanism whereby social cues could increase or sustain HPA-activity during stress. The data further suggest different mechanisms by which metabolic stress versus social information influence HPA activity and behavioral outcomes.

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