Clearly, i had an obligation to blog about an article titled "Who's Top Monkey?". Clearly.
Life for female rhesus macaques is a little like being trapped in high school--groups have intense social hierarchies where those at the top spend more time socializing and those at the bottom endure passive-aggressive overtures from peers. A study published today in Science reveals that social status in macaques can actually impact their immune system, resulting in significant differences in immune function between high- and low-status monkeys.
In the study, which was a collaboration among scientists at Duke University, Emory University and the University of Montreal, researchers organized 45 adult female macaques into social hierarchies and measured the animals' immune functions. They found that high-status monkeys have more immune cells needed to combat viral attacks, whereas low-status monkeys have heightened activity in cells that respond to bacterial invaders. Moreover, when the researchers artificially manipulated the monkeys' social ranks, their immune functions changed accordingly. The findings suggest a causal relationship between social rank and immune function that is reversible based on changing social conditions.
Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University who studies primates but was not involved in the study, wrote a perspective on the research also published today in Science. "We know that the most pounding, permeating form of social subordination in humans--poverty--produces poor health through a variety of mechanisms," he wrote in an email. "The study adds an important additional pathway by which this might occur."
For Tung, however, the outlook is not entirely bleak. "We've convincingly shown that chronic social stress by itself can change the way our body works," she says, "But the hopeful message is how responsive [immune] systems are to changes in the social environment. That's really different than the possibility that your social history stays with you your entire life."
So, if you're in high school and it sucks, you can continue to tell yourself that it gets better. And if you can find someone willing to groom you, it could get better even sooner.