Psychobiological mechanisms underlying the social buffering of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis: A review of animal models and human studies across development

Camelia E. Hostinar, Regina M. Sullivan, Megan R. Gunnar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

333 Scopus citations

Abstract

Discovering the stress-buffering effects of social relationships has been one of the major findings in psychobiology in the last century. However, an understanding of the underlying neurobiological and psychological mechanisms of this buffering is only beginning to emerge. An important avenue of this research concerns the neurocircuitry that can regulate the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenocortical (HPA) axis. The present review is a translational effort aimed at integrating animal models and human studies of the social regulation of the HPA axis from infancy to adulthood, specifically focusing on the process that has been named social buffering. This process has been noted across species and consists of a dampened HPA axis stress response to threat or challenge that occurs with the presence or assistance of a conspecific. We describe aspects of the relevant underlying neurobiology when enough information exists and expose major gaps in our understanding across all domains of the literatures we aimed to integrate. We provide a working conceptual model focused on the role of oxytocinergic systems and prefrontal neural networks as 2 of the putative biological mediators of this process, and propose that the role of early experiences is critical in shaping later social buffering effects. This synthesis points to both general future directions and specific experiments that need to be conducted to build a more comprehensive model of the HPA social buffering effect across the life span that incorporates multiple levels of analysis: neuroendocrine, behavioral, and social.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)256-282
Number of pages27
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Volume140
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2014

Keywords

  • Early caregiving
  • Oxytocin
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Social support
  • Stress

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