Sex-specific social regulation of inflammatory responses and sickness behaviors

Brain Behav Immun. 2010 Aug;24(6):942-51. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2010.03.006. Epub 2010 Mar 17.


In many mammals, the availability of familiar conspecifics in the home environment can affect immune function and morbidity. Numerous sex differences exist in immune responses, but whether the social environment impacts the immune system differently in males and females is not fully understood. This study examined behavioral and physiological responses to simulated bacterial infection in adult male and female Wistar rats housed either with three same-sex non-siblings (Group) or alone (Isolate). Rats were injected with bacterial lipopolysaccharide (Escherichia coli LPS; 150 microg/kg, i.p.), and behavioral (orectic, locomotor, and social) and physiological (thermoregulatory, cytokine, and corticosterone) inflammatory responses were measured. Among males, LPS-induced fever, suppressed locomotor activity, and inhibited feeding behavior and the magnitude of these responses were greater in Isolate relative to Group housed individuals. In contrast, among females group housing exacerbated behavioral and physiological symptoms of simulated infection. LPS treatments elicited IL-1beta production in all groups, but plasma IL-1beta concentrations were higher and peaked earlier in Isolate relative to Group males, and in Group relative to Isolate females. Furthermore, plasma concentrations of TNFalpha and IL-2 were higher in Group relative to Isolate males. Plasma corticosterone concentrations did not vary as a function of social housing conditions. Together, the data indicate that the social environment markedly influences innate immune responses. Group housing exacerbates inflammatory responses and sickness behaviors in females, but attenuates these responses in males. These sex differences are mediated in part by differential effects of the social environment on pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine production.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Infections / psychology
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Body Temperature / physiology
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Cytokines / blood
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Eating / physiology
  • Female
  • Illness Behavior*
  • Immunity, Innate / drug effects
  • Immunity, Innate / physiology
  • Inflammation / psychology*
  • Interleukin-1beta / metabolism
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Environment*
  • Telemetry


  • Cytokines
  • Interleukin-1beta
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Corticosterone