Repeated social defeat increases reactive emotional coping behavior and alters functional responses in serotonergic neurons in the rat dorsal raphe nucleus

Physiol Behav. 2011 Aug 3;104(2):272-82. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.01.006. Epub 2011 Jan 14.


Chronic stress is a vulnerability factor for a number of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and affective disorders. Social defeat in rats has proven to be a useful paradigm to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying physiologic and behavioral adaptation to acute and chronic stress. Previous studies suggest that serotonergic systems may contribute to the physiologic and behavioral adaptation to chronic stress, including social defeat in rodent models. In order to test the hypothesis that repeated social defeat alters the emotional behavior and the excitability of brainstem serotonergic systems implicated in control of emotional behavior, we exposed adult male rats either to home cage control conditions, acute social defeat, or social defeat followed 24h later by a second social defeat encounter. We then assessed behavioral responses during social defeat as well as the excitability of serotonergic neurons within the dorsal raphe nucleus using immunohistochemical staining of tryptophan hydroxylase, a marker of serotonergic neurons, and the protein product of the immediate-early gene, c-fos. Repeated social defeat resulted in a shift away from proactive emotional coping behaviors, such as rearing (explorative escape behavior), and toward reactive emotional coping behaviors such as freezing. Both acute and repeated defeat led to widespread increases in c-Fos expression in serotonergic neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus. Changes in behavior following a second exposure to social defeat, relative to acute defeat, were associated with decreased c-Fos expression in serotonergic neurons within the dorsal and ventral parts of the mid-rostrocaudal dorsal raphe nucleus, regions that have been implicated in 1) serotonergic modulation of fear- and anxiety-related behavior and 2) defensive behavior in conspecific aggressive encounters, respectively. These data support the hypothesis that serotonergic systems play a role in physiologic and behavioral responses to both acute and repeated social defeat.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Cell Count
  • Dominance-Subordination*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology
  • Male
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Raphe Nuclei / cytology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Tryptophan Hydroxylase / metabolism


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan Hydroxylase