The negative emotional consequences associated with life stress exposure in an individual can affect the emotional state of social partners. In this study, we describe an experimental rat model of social stress contagion and its effects on social behaviour and cardiac autonomic and neuroendocrine functions. Adult male Wistar rats were pair-housed and one animal (designated as “demonstrator” (DEM)) was submitted to either social defeat stress (STR) by an aggressive male Wild-type rat in a separate room or just exposed to an unfamiliar empty cage (control condition, CTR), once a day for 4 consecutive days. We evaluated the influence of cohabitation with a STR DEM on behavioural, cardiac autonomic and neuroendocrine outcomes in the cagemate (defined “observer” (OBS)). After repeated social stress, STR DEM rats showed clear signs of social avoidance when tested in a new social context compared to CTR DEM rats. Interestingly, also their cagemate STR OBSs showed higher levels of social avoidance compared to CTR OBSs. Moreover, STR OBS rats exhibited a higher heart rate and a larger shift of cardiac autonomic balance toward sympathetic prevalence (as indexed by heart rate variability analysis) immediately after the first reunification with their STR DEMs, compared to the control condition. This heightened cardiac autonomic responsiveness habituated over time. Finally, STR OBSs showed elevated plasma corticosterone levels at the end of the experimental protocol compared to CTR OBSs. These findings demonstrate that cohabitation with a DEM rat, which has experienced repeated social defeat stress, substantially disrupts social behaviour and induces short-lasting cardiac autonomic activation and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hyperactivity in the OBS rat, thus suggesting emotional state-matching between the OBS and the DEM rats. We conclude that this rodent model may be further exploited for investigating the neurobiological bases of negative affective sharing between social partners under chronic social stress conditions.
- Emotional contagion
- Social stress
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
- Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
- Psychiatry and Mental health
- Biological Psychiatry