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Social stress is arguably the predominant form of stress encountered by mammals, and in humans this type of stress contributes to a variety of diseases and psychopathologies (e.g., heart disease, depression, anxiety disorders). Many animal models of human stress-related disorders use stressors such as intermittent foot shock which offer the benefit of being highly controllable but which may bear little resemblance to stressors encountered in the lives of humans or non-humans. Animal models that use a social context closer to that which individuals might experience in their natural environment are essential to a better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying social behavior, in general, and experience-dependent behavioral plasticity, in particular. The Huhman lab studies a phenomenon called conditioned defeat in hamsters which is an ethologically relevant model of stress-induced behavioral plasticity wherein a single, brief exposure to a social stressor reliably induces profound and long-lasting changes in social behavior. We have demonstrated that the amygdala is critical to the acquisition and expression of conditioned defeat in hamsters, but there is also evidence that other brain areas are involved in the production of this behavioral change. Our current projects aim to identify the broader neural circuitry mediating conditioned defeat. We are also working 1) to determine in what part(s) of this neural circuit the critical plasticity occurs to mediate conditioned defeat and 2) to describe the cellular and molecular changes that underlie social stress-induced changes in behavior. We maintain that studying models such as conditioned defeat will improve our understanding of stress-related psychopathologies in humans and will ultimately lead to the development of better treatment options for these disorders.
National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH)