Cortisol Responses and Social Buffering: A Study Throughout the Life Span

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The ability of specific adult females to moderate plasma cortisol responses throughout the life span was examined in male guinea pigs maintained in large mixed age/sex groups. At four critical life stages of social development (preweaning, periadolescent, sexually but not socially mature, and sexually and socially mature), the same male guinea pigs were exposed to the stressor of exposure to a novel environment for 4 h while either alone, with an unfamiliar adult female, or with a favored adult female, as based on objective criteria from behavioral observation at that life stage. In preweaning males (9–19 days of age), the favored female (biological mother), but not an unfamiliar female, reduced the cortisol response in the novel environment. In periadolescents (49–61 days), an unfamiliar female, but not the favored female, buffered the cortisol response. At the sexually but not socially mature stage (114–126 days), the cortisol response to novelty was depressed in all conditions, and not affected by either female. At the sexually and socially mature stage (270–330 days), the favored female, but not the unfamiliar female, moderated cortisol levels. These results corroborate previous findings in infants and full adults, demonstrate marked age-specific changes in the ability of females to buffer hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal responses, and identify a heretofore undescribed period of cortisol response suppression in maturing male guinea pigs. The changing pattern of social buffering during the life span described here for the guinea pig might represent a more general pattern for males of other group-living mammals.



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