The impact of anxiety and reward-seeking traits on social competition and the role of the mesolimbic dopaminergic system

Social hierarchies are established across a range of different taxa in the animal kingdom. Given that hierarchy inequalities are highly present in nowadays society and the health problems that low rank individuals suffer from this, it is surprising that not much is known about the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that predispose an individual to become dominant or submissive. We aimed to have a better understanding of personality-related factors (such as anxiety and reward-seeking behaviors) and underlying brain mechanisms that predispose rats to become dominant. We aimed to study the neurobiological mechanisms involved in the modulation of dominance by anxiety. Peripheral injection of anxiolytic drugs has been shown to modulate the dopaminergic mesolimbic system by acting in the GABAergic neurons on the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Our studies specifically targeted GABAergic receptors within the VTA modulating both anxiety and dominance. However, the activation of GABAergic receptors in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) affected dominance but had no effect on anxiety. Furthermore, we found that the NAc is required for the effects of the anxiolytic diazepam on the establishment of social dominance. We assessed potential differences on the accumbal dopaminergic system in relation to anxiety. To this end, we assessed catecholamine€™s levels by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and confirmed the existence of differences in accumbal dopamine content between high and low anxious rats. Subsequently, we showed that pharmacological activation of D1 receptors within the NAc enhanced social dominance. In addition, activation of GABAergic receptors in the VTA, in addition to enhancing social dominance, enhanced the accumbal dopaminergic system. These findings lead us to hypothesize a critical role on the observed behavioral effects for the firing of the VTA dopaminergic neurons that project to the NAc. Subsequently, we investigated the consequences of phasically activating VTA dopaminergic neurons projecting to the NAc in a social competition test. To specifically modulate firing properties of dopaminergic neurons within the VTA of behaving animals, we performed optogenetic activation in TH::Cre rats infused with Cre-dependent virus expressing channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2). Our results showed that phasic activation of the VTA dopaminergic neurons during the social competition test for palatable rewards was not sufficient to modify the output of the encounters. Winners of the social competition tests were found to have a trend for higher reward-seeking phenotype (lower latencies to get rewards on their last day of individual training) which leads us to subsequently study the role of reward-seeking trait on the rank attained in a social hierarchy. Our data indicates a role for reward-seeking behaviors during last day of individual training (on social competition for palatable rewards test) on the output of several social competition tests. Interestingly, the combination of phasic optical activation of VTA dopaminergic neurons during the last two days of training and during social competition increased dominance. Altogether, our studies have elucidated the effects of anxiety and reward-seeking traits on rat's hierarchy establishment. Furthermore, we were able to modulate the output of a social competition test by optical activations of the mesolimbic dopaminergic system.


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