Social support structures reduce mortality and morbidity in humans, but the mechanisms underlying these reductions are not fully understood. The prevailing hypothesis is that social support buffers stress and reduces allostatic load, thereby increasing longevity. However, the possibility that affiliative social interactions confer health benefits independent of stress buffering is understudied. We examined autonomic function in prairie voles - arguably the premier species for modeling human social affiliation - to assess the possibility that the formation of strong social bonds alters autonomic function and contributes to health benefits. We examined cardiovascular measures in male prairie voles before and after two weeks of cohabitation with a female, during a partner preference test, and during social isolation. There were strong correlations between social contact and heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV), the latter being an index of autonomic nervous system function. Males that successfully pair-bonded with their partners displayed higher HRV prior to pairing than did unsuccessful males, suggesting higher basal parasympathetic tone in the successful males. HRV increased further still when pair-bonded males huddled quietly with their mates during the partner preference test. Non-pair-bonded males not only had lower baseline parasympathetic activity, but showed a further decrease after pairing. HR increased and HRV decreased during social isolation only in pair-bonded males. Since differences in HRV are thought to reflect the relative influences of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems on cardiac function, these results suggest that autonomic balance may contribute to social bonding and thus to its health benefits.
- Marriage benefit
- Microtus ochrogaster