Social interactions are critically important for survival and impact overall-health, but also impose costs on animals, such as exposure to contagious agents. The immune system can play a critical role in modulating social behavior when animals are sick, as has been demonstrated within the context of “sickness behaviors.” Can immune molecules affect or be affected by social interactions even when animals are not sick, therefore serving a role in mediating pathogen exposure? We tested whether markers of immune function in both the blood and the brain are associated with gregariousness, quantified as number of animals interacted with per day. To do this, we used remote tracking of social interactions of a wild population of house mice (Mus musculus domesticus) to categorize animals in terms of gregariousness. Blood, hair, brain and other tissue samples from animals with extreme gregariousness phenotypes were collected. We then tested whether the levels of three important cytokines (TNF-a, IFN-g and IL- 1b) in the serum, cortex and hypothalamus of these animals could be explained by the gregariousness phenotype and/or sex of the mice. Using the hair as a long-term quantification of steroid hormones, we also tested whether corticosterone, progesterone and testosterone differed by social phenotype. We found main effects of gregariousness and sex on the serum levels of TNF-a, but not on IFN-g or IL-1b. Brain gene expression levels were not different between phenotypes. All hair steroids tended to be elevated in animals of high gregariousness phenotype, independent of sex. In sum, elements of the immune system may be associated with gregariousness, even outside of major disease events. These results extend our knowledge of the role that immune signals have in contributing to the regulation of social behaviors outside periods of illness.
Lopes PC, Carlitz EHD, Kindel M, König B. Immune-Endocrine Links to Gregariousness in Wild House Mice. Front Behav Neurosci. 2020;14:10. Published 2020 Feb 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00010
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