Organisms react to threats with a variety of behavioral, hormonal, and neurobiological responses. The study of biological responses to stress has historically focused on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, but other systems such as the mesolimbic dopamine system are involved. Behavioral neuroendocrinologists have long recognized the importance of the mesolimbic dopamine system in mediating the effects of hormones on species specific behavior, especially aspects of reproductive behavior. There has been less focus on the role of this system in the context of stress, perhaps due to extensive data outlining its importance in reward or approach-based contexts. However, there is steadily growing evidence that the mesolimbic dopamine neurons have critical effects on behavioral responses to stress. Most of these data have been collected from experiments using a small number of animal model species under a limited set of contexts. This approach has led to important discoveries, but evidence is accumulating that mesolimbic dopamine responses are context dependent. Thus, focusing on a limited number of species under a narrow set of controlled conditions constrains our understanding of how the mesolimbic dopamine system regulates behavior in response to stress. Both affiliative and antagonistic social interactions have important effects on mesolimbic dopamine function, and there is preliminary evidence for sex differences as well. This review will highlight the benefits of expanding this approach, and focus on how social contexts and sex differences can impact mesolimbic dopamine stress responses.
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