Adaptive Modulation of Behavioural Profiles by Social Stress During Early Phases of Life and Adolescence

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The development of individual behavioural profiles can be powerfully influenced by stressful social experiences. Using a comparative approach, we focus on the role of social stressors for the modulation of behavioural profile during early phases of life and adolescence. For gregarious species, the stability of the social environment in which the pregnant and lactating female lives is of major importance for foetal brain development and the behavioural profile of the offspring in later life. Social instability during these critical periods of development generally brings about a behavioural and neuroendocrine masculinisation in daughters and a less pronounced expression of male-typical traits in sons. Moreover, when mothers live in a socially threatening world during this time, anxiety-like behaviour of their offspring often is elevated in adulthood. These effects of the social environment are likely to be mediated by maternal hormones and/or maternal behaviour. In addition, they can be modulated significantly by offspring genotype. We favour the hypothesis that the behavioural effects of social stress during this phase of life are not necessarily “pathological” (nonadaptive) consequences or constraints of adverse social conditions. Rather, mothers could be adjusting the offspring to their environment in an adaptive way. Adolescence is another period in which behavioural development is particularly susceptible to social influences. There is some evidence that stressful social events experienced at this time alter and canalize behaviour in an adaptive fashion, so that earlier influences on behavioural profile development can be complemented and readjusted, if necessary, to meet current environmental conditions. In terms of underlying neuroendocrine mechanism, a central role for the interaction of testosterone and stress hormones is suggested. In summary, the modulation of behavioural profiles by social stress from the prenatal phase through adolescence appears to represent an effective mechanism for repeated and rapid adaptation.



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