Monkey Immune System Impacted by Social Rank Changes

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April 10 2012 2:44 PM

Social Rank Linked to Immune System Changes in Monkeys

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(New research suggests that social rank can change the gene expression in primates. A 19-year-old Japanese macaque monkey named Monday looks on as her eyes water while suffering an allergy to pollen from the cedar tree, at Awajishima Monkey Center on March 26, 2012 in Sumoto, Hyogo, Japan.)

Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

New research shows that social rank and stress from changes in social rank can actually alter gene expression in primates and even impact their immune system.

Using gene chip technology to help compare high- and low-ranking rhesus macaque females, in which dominance is expressed through competition over food, water, and grooming partners, researchers discovered that when social rank improves, gene expression involved in the immune response and other functions changed within a matter of weeks.

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The "signature" of expression changes was so distinct, researchers were able to predict an individual monkey's social rank with high accuracy by only using their gene expression profile. The research fits with studies that suggest humans suffering social stress at a lower socioeconomic status are at a greater risk of disease.

Video produced by Jim Festante.

Ben Johnson is the producer of Marketplace Tech from American Public Media.

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