Social Connectedness and Stress

Exposure to stressors can profoundly influence how individuals cope with future challenges, sometimes priming them for future stress and sometimes debilitating them. While social connectedness has emerged as a key predictor of the psychophysiological impact of stress, it’s very difficult in a lab setting to realistically manipulate complex social networks or to determine the effect of specific biological changes on performance, health, and survival under real-world conditions. Therefore little is known about how and when changes in social environments alter organisms’ stress-coping capacity.

Awarded the DARPA Young Faculty Award, Maren N. Vitousek, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and her team are approaching this challenge by working in the lab and field. They use a nest-box breeding population of individually marked tree swallows. One key advantage of this model is that social interactions can be manipulated by changing feather color.

Using this population, Vitousek’s group is testing how stressful experiences and the social environment change an individual’s epigenetic code, neuroendocrine function, and gut microbial composition. The researchers are asking if the social environment during or after stressor exposure alters the biological response to stressors. They are also considering whether the specific combination of mechanistic changes predicts how individuals will cope with future challenges. Their findings will have implications for biological research across levels of organization, from molecular mechanisms to population distribution. The results could also have human health applications, enabling the development of sophisticated biomarkers of social cohesion or stress resistance, or even treatments to mimic or reverse these changes.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$500 Thousand spanning 2 years

Sponsored by