Neurobiological Correlates of Social Status

Animals of dominant, sub-dominant and subordinate status exhibit different neurobiological features. These differences likely are related to the differential requirements of animals of each rank in behaviors including social cognition, spatial cognition, feeding, drinking, activity, sleep, aggression, social reward etc. An important step to understanding how the brain facilitates status-specific behavior is to characterize how variation in key neurobiological markers is associated with social status.

In one study, we used autoradiography to examine whether variation in social status was associated with levels of oxytocin (OTR) and vasopressin 1a (V1aR) receptor binding in socially relevant brain regions.

We found that patterns of OTR and V1aR binding differed between mice of high and low social status. In particular, we observed that dominant males have markedly increased levels of OTR binding in the Nucleus Accumbens compared to subordinate individuals. Differences in receptor density in social brain regions may underlie behavioral differences that promote or inhibit the acquisition of social status. Alternatively, the different social experiences of dominant and subordinate animals shift receptor expression, potentially facilitating the expression of adaptive social behaviors.


Figure 1. From Lee et al. 2019. a) Representative autoradiographs of OTR binding in coronal sections. b) Raw data and boxplots of OTR density by social status groups in each brain region.

We also use candidate gene approaches to study individual differences in the brain associated with social status. Using quantitative real-time PCR we identified that mRNA levels of two neural plasticity genes, DNA methyltransferase 1 and 3a (DNMT1 and DNMT3a) , in the hippocampus were negatively correlated with measures of social dominance and power. DNA methylation via DNMT is one epigenetic mechanism that cells use to inhibit gene expression. Higher levels of DNMT1 in more subordinate mice may suggest that these mice are experiencing a social suppression of gene expression in the hippocampus. Differential gene expression between more and less dominant individuals in specific brain regions may enable status-specific contextually appropriate behaviors.


Figure 2. From Williamson et al. 2016. Hippocampal DNMT1 expression is negatively associated with measures of social dominance and power (A) Out-Degree and (B) Out-Closeness. Black dashed lines represent best-fit with outlier removed. Each point represents one individual with color representing the network community of that individual (orange – community A, dark gray – community B, light gray – other).

In our current work, we are taking a more explorative approach to investigate brain gene expression profiles of mice varying in social status.  Using Tag-based RNA-Sequencing (Tag-Seq) we have identified genes and gene networks that are differentially regulated between dominant and subordinate male mice in both the forebrain and midbrain.


musicnotationR: Producing music notation social graphs

musicnotationR is a basic R package for producing music notation social graphs. Currently there is one main function, musicnot() which can be used to plot temporally organized social interaction data according to the musical notation visualization method of Ivan Chase (2006) “Music notation: a new method for visualizing social interaction in animals and humans”, Frontiers Zoology 3: 18. Please see this primer for information on how to use the package.