Neuropharmacology of the mesolimbic system and associated circuits on social hierarchies

Neuropharmacology. 2019 Nov 15;159:107498. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2019.01.013. Epub 2019 Jan 17.


Most socially living species are organized hierarchically, primarily based on individual differences in social dominance. Dominant individuals typically gain privileged access to important resources, such as food, mating partners and territories, whereas submissive conspecifics are often devoid of such benefits. The benefits associated with a high social status provide a strong incentive to become dominant. Importantly, motivational- and reward-related processes are regulated, to a large extent, by the mesolimbic system. Consequently, several studies point to a key role for the mesolimbic system in social hierarchy formation. This review summarizes the growing body of literature that implicates the mesolimbic system, and associated neural circuits, on social hierarchies. In particular, we discuss the neurochemical and pharmacological studies that have highlighted the contributions of the mesolimbic system and associated circuits including dopamine signaling through the D1 or D2 receptors, GABAergic neurotransmission, the androgen receptor system, and mitochondria and bioenergetics. Given that low social status has been linked to the emergence of anxiety- and depressive-like disorders, a greater understanding of the neurochemistry underlying social dominance could be of tremendous benefit for the development of pharmacological treatments to dysfunctions in social behaviors. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled 'The neuropharmacology of social behavior: from bench to bedside'.

Keywords: Dominance; Dopamine; Mesolimbic system; Mitochondria; Nucleus accumbens; Social hierarchy; Ventral tegmental area.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine Agents / pharmacology*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / drug effects
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology
  • Hierarchy, Social*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / drug effects
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / drug effects
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neuropharmacology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / drug effects
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*


  • Dopamine Agents