The article reviewed here is ‘Social Buffering Relief from Stress and Anxiety’ by Kikusui and colleagues and freely available here. In the abstract the authors describe the phenomenon of social buffering thus
‘Highly social mammals have a distinct characteristic: when conspecific animals are together, they show a better recovery from experiences of distress. This phenomenon, termed ‘social buffering’, has been found in rodents, birds, non-human primate and also in humans’
The authors review this phenomenon in the article which is divided into an introduction, original findings of research into social buffering, social buffering/endocrine effects, cues responsible for social buffering, partner’s efficacy in social buffering, neural mechanisms of social buffering and clinical aspects. While an extensive number of references are used in this article, there is no stated methodology for identifying the references used.
In the introduction the authors draw attention to the detrimental effects of social isolation in animals as well as some of the evidence pointing to benefits for ‘social support’ although the meaning of ‘social support’ is not specified within the introduction.
The authors then look at endocrine and behavioural findings in the research literature and note that rats seek out other rats which may be either to escape ‘negative emotions’ or to seek reward while humans are described as
‘more likely to affiliate when under stress‘
Further the authors look at primate endocrine findings and note that in the Squirrel monkey the presence of other monkeys reduces cortisol secretion in response to different stressors.
In the next section on social buffering and endocrine effects they look more closely at some of the possible mechanisms through which social buffering may act including the possible mediation of these effects by the release of corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF). They also note the evidence in squirrel monkeys and rhesus monkeys whilst outlining evidence suggesting that smaller numbers of monkeys are required in the latter group to mediate the effect. Evidence for the involvement of the Paraventricular Nucleus is also discussed.
In the section on cues for social buffering, the authors cover the different types of sensory information that may be involved in mediating these effects. They note that tactile cues, as seen for instance in grooming, may involve Oxytocin/HPA axis in the mediation of the social buffering effect although evidence contradicting this also mentioned and is interpreted as meaning that the quality of the relationships is also important. However this could also be used to invalidate the hypothesis that the HPA axis is involved in mediating a social buffering effect although it would be strongly expected on the basis of physiology. They then look at olfactory cues and discuss some of the evidence supporting the importance of pheromones in the possible mediation of social buffering. The role of auditory cues in marmosets is then discussed briefly before the authors look at visual cues in sheep with supporting evidence for the possible role of such information in mediation of the social buffering effect.
In the next section on the effects of the conspecific animal on the social buffering effect they cite evidence supporting the importance of a familiar partner as well as the emotional status of the conspecific animal (e.g. fearful rats are more likely to seek other rats). They then look at specific mechanisms by which these effects may be mediated focusing specifically on Oxytocin and Opiates as well as their interaction. The role of Oxytocin in inhibiting the HPA axis is discussed as are the effects of lactation on Oxytocin release. There is a tentative look at the possible involvement of the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex in social buffering also. Evidence implicating opioids in social buffering and it would be interesting to see this developed further. The discussion of the interactions between the Oxytocin and Opiate systems is interesting and the Paraventricular Nucleus is brought into the discussion.
Finally the authors discuss clinical aspects of social buffering. Curiously there is only a brief discussion of mental illnesses such as depression and instead the main focus for the authors is on the relationship of the social buffering on blood pressure, heart rate, wound healing and somatic growth amongst others. There are a number of potential relationships of significance particularly those conditions which may involve social isolation such as schizoid personality, schizotypal disorder and anxious avoidant personality (although this latter diagnosis is not without controversy). The Hypothalamus/HPA axis has also been discussed in the context of pervasive developmental disorders and it would therefore be very interesting to see the latter section developed further.
The authors have brought together a considerable amount of evidence to support their core arguments for a role of Oxytocin and Opiates in a social buffering effect and this appears to be an important area and one which it will be interesting to follow.
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