Fighting Females: Neural and Behavioral Consequences of Social Defeat Stress in Female Mice

Biol Psychiatry. 2019 Nov 1;86(9):657-668. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.05.005. Epub 2019 May 13.


Background: Despite the twofold higher prevalence of major depressive and posttraumatic stress disorders in women compared with men, most clinical and preclinical studies have focused on male subjects. We used an ethological murine model to study several cardinal symptoms of affective disorders in the female targets of female aggression.

Methods: Intact Swiss Webster (CFW) female resident mice were housed with castrated male mice and tested for aggression toward female intruders. For 10 days, aggressive CFW female residents defeated C57BL/6J (B6) female intruders during 5-minute encounters. Measures of corticosterone, c-Fos activation in hypothalamic and limbic structures, and species-typical behaviors were collected from defeated and control females. Ketamine (20 mg/kg) was tested for its potential to reverse stress-induced social deficits.

Results: Housed with a castrated male mouse, most intact resident CFW females readily attacked unfamiliar B6 female intruders, inflicting >40 bites in a 5-minute encounter. Compared with controls, defeated B6 females exhibited elevated plasma corticosterone and increased c-Fos activation in the medial amygdala, ventral lateral septum, ventromedial hypothalamus, and hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus. Chronically defeated females also showed vigilance-like behavior and deficits in social interactions, novel object investigation, and nesting. The duration of social interactions increased 24 hours after chronically defeated female mice received a systemic dose of ketamine.

Conclusions: These findings demonstrate that CFW female mice living with male conspecifics can be used as aggressive residents in an ethological model of female social defeat stress. These novel behavioral methods will encourage further studies of sex-specific neural, physiological, and behavioral adaptations to chronic stress and the biological bases for interfemale aggression.

Keywords: Affective disorders; Aggression; Female; Ketamine; Social defeat stress; Social interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aggression*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Genes, Immediate-Early
  • Genes, fos*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Behavior
  • Stress, Psychological*


  • Corticosterone