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Hypercortisolism Associated With Social Subordinance or Social Isolation Among Wild Baboons

Robert M. Sapolsky, PhD; Susan C. Alberts, PhD; Jeanne Altmann, PhD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1997;54(12):1137-1143. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1997.01830240097014.
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Background:  The phenomena of basal hypercortisolism and of dexamethasone resistance have long intrigued biological psychiatrists, and much is still unknown as to the causes and consequences of such adrenocortical hyperactivity in various neuropsychiatric disorders. We have analyzed basal cortisol concentrations and adrenocortical responsiveness to dexamethasone in a population of wild baboons living in a national park in Kenya. We tested whether social subordinance in a primate is associated with dexamethasone resistance. Furthermore, we examined whether individual differences in adrenocortical measurements were predicted by the extent of social affiliation in these animals.

Methods:  Seventy yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus) were anesthetized and injected with 5 mg of dexamethasone; the cortisol response was monitored for 6 hours. The animals were of both sexes in a range of ages and had known ranks in the dominance hierarchies within their troops. Extensive behavioral data were available for a subset of 12 adult males who were anesthetized under circumstances that also allowed for the determination of basal cortisol concentrations.

Results:  The socially subordinate baboons were less responsive to dexamethasone than were the dominant ones; as one manifestation of this, postdexamethasone cortisol values were more than 3 times higher in the dozen lowest-ranking animals compared with the dozen highest. In addition, socially isolated males had elevated basal cortisol concentrations and showed a trend toward relative dexamethasone resistance.

Conclusions:  Our findings indicate that social status and degree of social affilitation can influence adrenocortical profiles; specifically, social subordinance or social isolation were associated in our study with hypercortisolism or feedback resistance.

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