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Social stress adversely affects digestive function in subordinate cichlid fish

Emory University Health Sciences Center

A new Center for Behavioral Neuroscience study has determined that social stress adversely affects digestive function in subordinate cichlid fish. The finding appears in the January issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

In the study of Central American convict cichlid fish, CBN scientists Ryan L. Earley, Ph.D. and Matthew Grober, Ph.D. of Georgia State University, and Lawrence Blumer, Ph.D. of Morehouse College, compared bile retention and gall bladder size in dominant and subordinate males that had eaten equal amounts of food.

The scientists discovered not only were the gall bladders in the subordinate fish much larger, they were filled with dark "bad bile," unlike the pale bile in the dominant fish. The difference in gall bladder function also likely contributed to subordinate fish growing more slowly than the dominant ones. Cichlids have rigid dominance hierarchies, providing excellent models for the study of social stress. Previous cichlid studies have determined that the chronic stress of social subordination has other physiological consequences, including changes in body weight and hormones.

CBN scientists believe the latest finding supports a link between social stress and digestive function and could have implications for understanding disorders such as gallstones, a product of excess bile accumulation, in humans.

"Because social stress activates the nervous system of humans in similar ways as it does in fishes," said Earley, "the study could hold clues to evaluating the risk factors that contribute to gallstone formation in people."

Added Grober, "This is the first compelling evidence that gall bladder disease in vertebrates could be induced by social stress."

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The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center, is a research and education consortium consisting of lead institution Georgia State University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the five schools comprising the Atlanta University Center (Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Morris Brown College, and Spelman College). CBN researchers study four aspects of behavioral neuroscience: fear, aggression, affiliation and reproduction.

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