Effects of social rank and pubertal delay on brain structure in female rhesus macaques

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2023 Mar:149:105987. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2022.105987. Epub 2022 Dec 1.


Adverse social experience during childhood and adolescence leads to developmental alterations in emotional and stress regulation and underlying neurocircuits. We examined the consequences of social subordination (low social rank) in juvenile female rhesus monkeys, as an ethologically valid model of chronic social stressor exposure, on brain structural and behavioral development through the pubertal transition. Adolescence is a developmental period of extensive brain remodeling and increased emotional and stress reactivity. Puberty-induced increases in gonadal hormones, particularly estradiol (E2), are likely involved due to its organizational effects on the brain and behavior. Thus, we also examined how experimentally delaying pubertal onset with Lupron (gonadotropin releasing hormone -GnRH- agonist used clinically to delay early puberty) interacted with social rank (dominant vs. subordinate) to affect brain and behavioral outcomes. Using a longitudinal experimental design, structural MRI (sMRI) scans were collected on socially housed juvenile female rhesus monkeys living in indoor-outdoor enclosures prior to the onset of puberty (18-25 months), defined as menarche or the initial occurrence of perineal swelling and coloration, and again at 29-36 months, when all control animals had reached puberty but none of the Lupron-treated had. We examined the effects of both social rank and pubertal delay on overall structural brain volume (i.e. intracranial, grey matter (GM) and white matter (WM) volumes), as well as on cortico-limbic regions involved in emotion and stress regulation: amygdala (AMYG), hippocampus (HC), and prefrontal cortex (PFC). Measures of stress physiology, social behavior, and emotional reactivity were collected to examine functional correlates of the brain structural effects. Apart from expected developmental effects, subordinates had bigger AMYG volumes than dominant animals, most notably in the right hemisphere, but pubertal delay with Lupron-treatment abolished those differences, suggesting a role of gonadal hormones potentiating the brain structural impact of social stress. Subordinates also had elevated baseline cortisol, indicating activation of stress systems. In general, Lupron-treated subjects had smaller AMYG and HC volume than controls, but larger total PFC (driven by bigger GM volumes), and different, region-specific, developmental patterns dependent on age and social rank. These findings highlight a region-specific effect of E2 on structural development during female adolescence, independent of those due to chronological age. Pubertal delay and AMYG volume, in turn, predicted differences in emotional reactivity and social behavior. These findings suggest that exposure to developmental increases in E2 modifies the consequences of adverse social experience on the volume of cortico-limbic regions involved in emotional and stress regulation during maturation. But, even more importantly, they indicate different brain structural effects of chronological age and pubertal developmental stage in females, which are very difficult to disentangle in human studies. These findings have additional relevance for young girls who experience prolonged pubertal delays or for those whose puberty is clinically arrested by pharmacological administration of Lupron.

Keywords: Adolescence; Emotionality; Estradiol; Lupron; MRI; Nonhuman primate.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Animals
  • Brain
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Gray Matter
  • Humans
  • Leuprolide* / pharmacology
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Puberty, Delayed*


  • Leuprolide