Intraspecific confrontation between male rats represents a biologically relevant form of social stress. C-fos expression has been used to map the pattern of neural activation following either a single (acute) or repeated (10 times) exposure of an intruder male to a larger male in the latter’s home cage. These conditions induce high levels of aggressive interaction.
Sixty minutes after a single defeat, there was intense c-fos expression (quantified using image analysis) in restricted areas of the basal forebrain (including lateral septum, bed nucleus of stria terminalis, lateral preoptic area, lateral hypothalamic area, paraventricular nucleus, and medial and central amygdala) as well as in the autonomic and monoaminergic nuclei of the brainstem (central grey, dorsal and median raphe, locus coeruleus and nucleus of the solitary tract). After the tenth defeat, this pattern was modified despite persistently high levels of aggression. Some areas in the forebrain (bed nucleus of stria terminalis, paraventricular nucleus and medial amygdala) continued to express increased c-fos; others (the septum, lateral hypothalamic area, lateral preoptic area and central amygdala) no longer expressed c-fos. The brainstem response was equally varied: the central grey and the raphe nuclei continued to respond after repeated defeat, whereas the solitary nucleus and locus coeruleus did not. On the other hand, there was no change in the behaviour of intruder rats after repeated defeat.
This study shows the pattern of adaptation at a cellular level in the basal forebrain and brainstem to repeated defeat. As in our previous studies of repeated restraint, modulation in the expression of c-fos following repeated stress is highly regionally specific, suggesting that differential neural processing is involved in adaptation to social stress.